The following feature includes the eulogy given for Judge John D. Johnson, along with additional material.
On July 23, funeral services were held for the Honorable Judge John D. Johnson, a man of achievement, culture, education and integrity. Legend has it that at Dr. Enid Curtis-Pinkney’s wedding Judge Johnson coined the phrase, “We is one.” As he carried her weddings gifts to her car, Dr. Pinkney, thinking the task beneath him, commented, “You shouldn’t be carrying these; we can get someone else to do it.”
Judge Johnson quickly responded, “Honey, it’s no problem. After all, ‘we is one.’”
Over the years, the saying stuck and it became their private joke and his mantra. But his saying “We Is One” on many occasions struck many as odd because of the implied lapse in diction, decorum and dignity. Using this throw-back phrase to his black roots caused many to chuckle, yet it made everyone stop and think. Because of the humor and the sentence structure, his words became thought-provokingly deep.
Judge Johnson was a servant of society, a church-going man, who, as his niece Dr. Dorothy Fields puts it, “was not a religious man but a man of faith.” Motivated by justice, filled with humor and possessing a keen intellect, he made tremendous contributions to our community and to the world.
Another instance of his humor came seven years ago, after his portrait was hung in the Flagler Street courthouse. “You know, I am the first black man to be hung inside the courthouse,” he joked.
Psalm 90 was his favorite. It is the only Psalm attributed to Moses. It is about oppressors and praising God and it reminds us our place is to be submissive to God. Its reference to Moses reminds us that all theology began with God’s calling of Moses in Exodus 3:1-14. There, God speaking from a burning bush about the pain, suffering and chaos endemic in the world, reveals himself as holy and creative. He offers us a covenant and seals the offer, giving us His personal name, “I AM.”
Judge Johnson was a legal Moses who never hesitated to say, “I am doing,” or “I have done.” Married for 55 years to his beloved Johnalie but with no children, he took it upon himself to make the community his family and his nieces and nephews his children. Dr. Fields and I discussed how profound it is that most of his siblings had few children but served and made great contributions to society.
I think it is worth mentioning that the plight of the black male in his day required, just as it does today, extreme self-confidence. So many in and outside of our race seek to burst the black male’s bubble of self-confidence which, to succeed, we must create but, if we are not careful, this bubble becomes a hardened outer shell which, over time, turns into an arrogant self-centeredness.
The Psalmist tells us to number our days by asking, “What do I want to see happen in my life before I die?” What small step can I take today towards my purpose? Judge Johnson answered those questions and took the needed steps toward growth.
As years passed, it would have been easy for him to get discouraged, as the world seemingly didn’t get better. Because of his knowledge of this psalm, Judge Johnson knew he couldn’t just remain a teacher; he had to reach higher. He knew he couldn’t remain a lawyer; he knew he had to reach higher. He knew he couldn’t remain a judge; he knew he had to make history. He had to become more than a good black man; he had to become a great judge.
Judge Johnson, in private moments, often spoke of the great people he had known, people like the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, dean of Chapel at Howard University; the great law professor Charles Huston, who taught Judge Johnson and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Dr. Mordecai Johnson, who was Howard University’s first black president; and our mutual friend, Dr. Dorothy Height.
These were just some of the people he knew, who, like him, fought for the house keeper, the golf caddy, the taxi cab driver, the welfare recipient, the health-care professional, the teacher and the student. He was a difference-maker, who, like all the others, believed “We is one.”
The statement “We is one” reminds us of Christ’s words. Judge Johnson was a charter member of my church, The Church of the Open Door Congregational U.C.C., and our denomination’s motto is “That they may all be one.” Jesus prays these words in prayer for his disciples (John 17:11).
He never forgot his color or his kind and was proud to be a judge, yet he remained keenly aware he was a black. God affirmed the work of his hands, as he lived out his mantra, “We is one.”
The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis is pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Miami. He may be contacted at 305-759-0373 or firstname.lastname@example.org