Donaldsonville native Bernette Joshua Johnson reminisced Thursday about attending segregated public schools in New Orleans and being denied the right to vote in Louisiana in 1964 after graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement.
Still, Johnson went on to become the first woman elected to sit on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court and was elected in 1994 to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, becoming the high court’s first black chief justice in 2013. She continues serving as the court’s 25th chief justice.
“I was surprised I was able to accomplish this in America,” Johnson told a packed Baton Rouge federal courtroom during the court’s 20th annual African-American Heritage Celebration. “I’m living the American dream.”
The program was titled “Steps to Justice,” and Johnson — one of the first black women to attend the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at LSU, where she received her law degree in 1969 — recounted the civil rights struggles that paved her way to Louisiana’s top court.
Johnson noted that last year marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and this year is the golden anniversary of Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“In 50 years, we’ve made tremendous progress in America,” she said, with Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson and fellow U.S. District Judges James Brady and Shelly Dick seated behind her. Students from Scotlandville Magnet High School filled the area normally reserved for jurors.
The Voting Rights Act prohibited discrimination in voting.
The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce.
“There was a tremendous burden to even travel,” Johnson said of blacks who had to plan trips around which motels, hotels and restaurants would allow them admittance.
The Civil Rights Act also prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on grounds of race, color, religion or national origin; barred unequal application of voter registration requirements; and encouraged the desegregation of public schools.
“I never had the opportunity to attend a desegregated high school in New Orleans,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which Johnson referenced, made it unconstitutional to allow separate public schools for black and white students.
Johnson also made mention of the historic Louisiana case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the nation’s highest court ruled in 1896 that segregation laws were constitutional. The Supreme Court reversed course with the Brown ruling. The high court in 1955 ordered that desegregation occur with “all deliberate speed.”
“All of it is our history. We accept all of that and move forward,” Johnson said, adding that the United States is the greatest country in the world “despite all our warts and blemishes.”
At times, the chief justice spoke directly to the Scotlandville Magnet students seated in the jury box to her left. She urged them to take full advantage of Louisiana’s $250 million free college tuition program known as TOPS.
A report released late last year to the state Board of Regents said TOPS awards have gone disproportionately to white students over the past decade and, on average, to students from wealthier families.
“Get your free education,” Johnson implored. “I’ll be checking.”
The program has been around since 1998 and provides scholarships to Louisiana high school students who complete a certain curriculum and who meet grade-point average and college entrance test score requirements: at least a 2.5 gpa and a 20 on the ACT. The basic TOPS award covers tuition at any state public university, regardless of a student’s need or ability to pay. Higher-achieving students can earn extra payments.