Johnson, Charles V. (b. 1928)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 10/13/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8610
Charles Vernon Johnson, retired presiding judge of King County Superior Court, played an influential role in Seattle’s civil rights struggle during the 1960s and has spent almost 40 years in a leadership role with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as president of the local branch, president of the Pacific Northwest Region, and member of the national executive board.

Born to Charlie and Laura Johnson in Malvern, Arkansas, he was raised in Little Rock, attended the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff, served in the military during the Korean War, returned to the university in 1952, and received his BA in 1954. During his senior year at the University of Arkansas, he was influenced by a professor to apply to law school at the University of Washington. Upon acceptance, he drove to Seattle, enrolled in the law school, and worked in the post office at night. He received his LLB (Bachelor of Laws) in 1957 and went into the private practice of law in 1958.

In 1959, he was approached by Jack Tanner, president of the Northwest branches of the NAACP, and asked to bring leadership to the Seattle Branch. Taking over as membership chair, he increased the membership from 300 to more than 1,000. This propelled him into the presidency of the branch and headfirst into the civil rights movement.

A leading figure in the Central Area Civil Rights Organization, along with John Adams, Edwin T. Pratt (1930-1969), and Walt Hundley (1929-2002), he contributed legal insight and counsel for the various projects which included boycotts of the Bon Marche and Safeway stores and marches for housing.

He led a demonstration for open housing with 500 people in attendance at the City Administration building and supported a group of NAACP youth in their sit-in there. These demonstrations resulted in the passing of the Open Housing Ordinance in 1968 and in the formation of the Human Rights Commission.

In a protest march for jobs in 1963, he was one of the leaders of 700 demonstrators in downtown Seattle. He assisted in the formation of 19 freedom schools during the boycott of Central Area schools in 1966.

Johnson set up the mechanism for providing bail for demonstrators jailed in the protests, and he frequently represented black people with legal difficulties resulting from protest activities. His legal support was the backbone of the civil rights movement in King County.

When programs began to develop from federal funds, he served on boards of the Central Area Motivation Program, and the Odessa Brown Childrens' Clinic, and as chair of the Model Cities Program. He served chair of the East Madison YMCA during its capital fund drive for a new building and swimming pool in 1959.

In 1969, Charles V. Johnson was appointed Seattle Municipal Court Judge by Mayor Floyd Miller and in 1981, was appointed to the King County Superior Court bench by Governor Dixie Lee Ray. The highlight of his judicial career came during his four years as presiding judge when he reorganized the court and cleared up a backlog of 68,000 cases.

His awards include the Outstanding Judge Award by the Washington State Bar Association in 1994, the Edwin T. Pratt Award in 1995, and Nordstrom’s Cultural Diversity Award in 1998.


Sources: Charles Johnson interview by Mary Henry, Seattle, 1998.

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