Tribute to a Seattle Civil Rights Legacy: Judge Charles V. Johnson

by Judge Anita Crawford-Willis

The Honorable Charles V. Johnson was among the many civil rights leaders of our times whose path breaking journey ensured transformative change. He was an extraordinary eyewitness to history, determined to forge a new pathway for Washingtonians. Judge Johnson is distinguished by one transcendent theme: He was a servant leader with an overwhelming sense of duty to work for equality of opportunity and racial justice through the rule of law. 

Judge Johnson arrived in Seattle in 1954 to attend the University of Washington School of Law.  During an interview, he recalled there were just two additional Black students enrolled when he arrived. One of them dropped out after six weeks and the other shortly thereafter. As a result, Johnson was the only Black graduate in his class. Having grown up in the segregated South, and serving our country in a segregated army abroad, law school was the first time he would sit down across from whites to have a conversation, let alone discuss the law. 

Upon graduation, Johnon received one of his most consequential and important calls, to lead the Seattle chapter of the NAACP in 1958 — where he left an indelible mark in the community. Improving the quality of education for Black people in Seattle would be among the plethora of issues he championed in his lifetime. Judge Johnson grew up with the understanding that education was an essential key to economic mobility for Black people. His parents raised him and his four siblings to value education. He and his siblings all earned degrees: His younger brother achieved a Ph.D., and two sisters received a master’s degree. 

In his tenure at the NAACP, Judge Johnson was also a champion of busing to assist the effort to integrate schools, as well as being a firm advocate for  addressing real estate and employment discrimination. 

Judge Johnson possessed an innate ability to recognize gaps in the legal profession and worked with others to create a lasting impact. The Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) was founded in 1933. All attorneys who wanted to practice in the state of Washington needed to pass the bar. For most attorneys, WSBA, along with local bars, provided a platform for networking.  However in the 1960s, there were few Black attorneys, and they were not welcome to network with fellow legal professionals. To provide a forum for Black attorneys, judges, professors, and students to network and support each other nationally, the National Bar Association was founded in 1925. However, Washington state did not have a local bar providing Black legal professionals this opportunity.  

In August 1968, Judge Johnson, along with 10 attorneys, came together to form the Loren Miller Bar Club, which later became the Loren Miller Bar Association (LMBA). The organization continues to provide a platform for engagement and support among Black attorneys in Washington state. But at its core, it has maintained its primary mision of serving as a civil rights organization, confronting discrimination in employment, housing, education, as well as many other equity issues. For most Black law students in Washington, LMBA serves as the jumping board for engagement in the legal community, and for advice and counsel. Judge Johnson made sure he was always available to help students.  

Judge Johnson had a way of engaging his mentees in critical thought about strategies, while encouraging them to seek deeper discernment in their pursuits. Moreover, he had a way of making each student or attorney seeking his guidance believe they were truly special and receiving one-of-a-kind inside knowledge. Throughout my career, I cannot recall a moment in which I did not seek his guidance. He would also be the gentle push I needed to finally go to the bench.  

I remember the first time I appeared before Judge Johnson. I was a young lawyer at the public defender’s office, representing juveniles. I had so much passion and zeal representing my clients. I had also heard about him from other attorneys. He was tough and expected Black lawyers to be prepared. He had high expectations for us when entering his courtroom. So, I made sure I dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.” I cannot remember whether or not he agreed with all of my arguments. I do, however, remember the smile and pride I saw in his face, signaling that I had met his expectations. It reminded me of the pride I saw in my dad’s face when I became a lawyer.

At the time I met him, I had no idea of the impact he would have in my life. I came to rely on his counsel, both professionally and personally. I grew to have an unwavering level of respect, admiration, and love for the Judge and Mrs. Johnson. 

Judge Johnson served on the Seattle Municipal Court between 1969 and 1980. In 1981, he was appointed to the Washington State Superior Court. He immediately began to address inefficiencies and the need for diversity on the court. Judge Johnson worked diligently to diversify the clerk’s office, while hiring additional Black probation officers. And he continued to mentor all attorneys who appeared before him on the court.

But perhaps Judge Johnson is best known for his commitment to being an ongoing presence in the community. He was a devout and active member of his church and shared an unwavering dedication to youth. I, like many of us in the legal community, found joy in participating in the annual Youth and Law Forum he and others established over 30 years ago. His presence will be profoundly missed as he greeted the more than 300 attendees and speakers participating each year. Those of us who know him can speak of an incredibly special relationship, and the personal attention we received from Judge Johnson, as he was mentor, advisor, and sponsor to countless members of the community.  

Judge Johnson’s presence was larger than life, a superhero who lived among us, in 

Seattle, a place that became his home. I’m so thankful and grateful for the time I got to spend with him and the love of his life, his wife, Lazelle Johnson. She graciously opened her heart and allowed her husband to serve the community, as they both had a shared vision for racial justice.  

The legacy of love he leaves his family, and those he worked to empower, was built on his service to justice.  His commitment to his ideals made him a national leader for civil liberties, human rights, and promoting the ideal of justice. This tribute cannot capture the depth of the loss our community feels in this moment. He did so many great things and answered the call of service because he loved his people and the country he served. But, we can honor Judge Johnson’s call by making the commitment to continue the work he started, to address the need for equal justice, and also being servant leaders.  

The marathon toward racial justice continues. Judge Johnson has run his course. We now embrace the baton that has been passed to us. Rest in power, Judge Charles V. Johnson.

Judge Anita Crawford-Willis was appointed to the Seattle Municipal Court bench in 2017 after nearly 30 years in public service as a public defender, judge pro tempore, and administrative law judge. Judge Crawford-Willis is a native of Seattle and grew up in the Central District with parents who were proud members of the Machinists Union (IAM 751) and worked on the Boeing production line for 35 years.

Featured Image: NAACP 100th Anniversary dinner. (Photo: Susan Fried)