Although Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson was reared in Newton County at a time when the image of a black Superior Court Judge was non-existent, his memories of his childhood home are marked more by the people in his community than a resistance to the change brought on by the civil rights movement.
"Covington has always been a special place to grow up and to live. And most people who come here and give it a real shot and chance agree that they find it a special place to be and to be from," said Johnson. "I can’t articulate and tell you why. I think the people have a lot to do with it. Even in the tougher times, there were always good people who had not only good intentions, but who had good souls and a willingness to do the right thing. Even when the right thing was not the popular thing to do."
Born at Newton County hospital during segregation’s heyday, Johnson said he was insulated from a lot of the tension that was going on around him.
One of Johnson’s earliest memories of the influence the civil rights movement had on his life in 1960’s Newton was when as a fourth grade student, he was one of about four or five black children who were chosen to integrate Ficquett Elementary School. Johnson said it was the friendships that he cultivated, not any civil unrest, that he remembers most about that experience in his life.
"The kids that I met were friendly, very friendly. Some I’m still very close to today. And we’re talking 40 plus years ago. But even as a child I knew that the behaviors--the hatreds and things -- that were portrayed by some people weren’t innate. They had to be taught.," Johnson said.
While Johnson’s desegregation experience was rather uneventful, he could only imagine the decision his parents, who both worked in the school system--his father as an educator and his mother as a home demonstration agent--must have struggled with when allowing their son to cross the line.
"This wasn’t Little Rock or Alabama. You know the things that we all heard about or knew about were going on that were very violent in those days. But clearly some people were uncomfortable and there was some anxiety among parents I’m sure about it as well," Johnson said. "I’ve never actually sat down and talked with them about what was in their minds when they sent me. But I can imagine that they had a lot of conversations about whether they really wanted to do it and if I was going to be okay."
Johnson attended Ficquett Elementary for four years until junior high school, when integration fully set in after the predominantly black school was closed and its students were merged into the system with their white counterparts. It was then, around 1969, that Johnson began to recognize signs of the racial tension that existed in the county.
"When we went to Cousins Jr. High School as opposed to R.L. Cousins High School, which it was then, there were students that were with me for four years, and then we merged together, who weren’t there anymore, which I thought was interesting as a child. I didn’t understand at that point why it was okay for them to be with me for four years and when we got to eighth grade, they were gone. It was definitely a tumultuous time watching the events taking place in town."
While Johnson admits there were situations he wished would have gone differently in the county when he was growing, what stands out in his mind are the happy times he had as a child.
"I grew up on Sandhill. I lived in a very close knit community where everybody knew everybody…I went to church here in this community…I remember walking to Mr. John Paul Johnson’s store on Washington street as a child. Those are the things I remember most," said Johnson.
The strides made in the county, along with those memories, drew Johnson back to Newton after graduating from Oxford College, Emory University and the University of Georgia School of Law, and later practicing law in Atlanta.
"It’s a much more diverse community now. It’s not as provincial as it was before as well. I think that’s part of the schism you have going on now in our community in trying to hold on to the traditions of the past, but trying to infuse some of today," Johnson said. "The tension we have now, some may say it’s bad but I think it’s good. Because I think the tension will bring about hopefully a good result for the community as we find our way to our next place."