Born in segregated Arkansas in 1928, Judge Charles V. Johnson helped break the color barrier in Seattle, where he was lauded for bringing racial equity to his courtroom, revitalization to the NAACP and leadership to the region’s civil rights movement.
Johnson, who died peacefully in his sleep in his Leschi home on Dec. 29, was remembered by colleagues, family and friends as a trailblazer who never boasted, a mild-mannered man with a good sense of humor. He was 92.
The public knew him for his 30-year career as a Seattle Municipal and King County Superior Court judge, where he helped integrate and improve the efficiency of every system he touched.
“Judge Johnson was the best of Seattle, a stellar example of what’s possible when persistence, dedication, and opportunity meet,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “His sagacity, the compassion he showed for those who stood before his bench, and his dedication to improving the judiciary has made us a better city.”
From an early age, Johnson’s family instilled in him the belief that education provided the power to rise above the segregated south. When he finished junior college at 20, Johnson enrolled in the military and was deployed to Germany for four years, according to a 2017 interview with King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
Johnson’s story about his military service was featured in the 2014 documentary, “Breath of Freedom.”
“As a young prosecutor, going into Judge C.V. Johnson’s courtroom was everything you could hope for — it was dignified, respectful and fair, and the judge’s commanding presence was the consistent factor,” Satterberg said in an email.
When he returned to a segregated U.S., Johnson missed the freedom of an integrated Germany where he was able to enter any establishment without restriction.
“Many of the soldiers that I know came home and they became engaged in the civil rights battle because they had had a breath of freedom, and they wanted some more freedom,” Johnson said in the 2017 interview.
In 1954, Johnson enrolled in the University of Washington School of Law, where he was the only Black person who graduated in his class.
His desire to create a more equitable Seattle encouraged Johnson to revive the NAACP’s Seattle Chapter in 1958, where he served in a leadership role for four decades.
“At all levels in this organization — from branch, state, regional and national levels — and from the streets to the courtrooms, he worked tirelessly to fight for civil rights,” said Carolyn Riley-Payne, president of Seattle/King County NAACP. “He loved the NAACP, he loved civil rights, and he loved the people who he worked so hard to make this world a better place for. He will be greatly missed.”
Lacy Steele, Seattle/King County NAACP president emeritus, met Johnson a year after he helped revive the Seattle chapter. In the decades since, the two worked together on the NAACP national board and attended First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their daughters were close friends.
“He did a lot of things he didn’t have to do, but he did it because that’s the type of person he is,” Steele said. “He was strong, he never boasted.”
In the early 1960s, Johnson helped lead a march to persuade stores to hire Black workers. He participated in demonstrations at City Hall to end segregated housing and demand that Black people be allowed to live wherever they could afford. After several years of effort, the Seattle City Council passed an open housing ordinance in 1968, weeks after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to prohibit discriminatory practices in the sale and rental of properties.
After he graduated from law school, Johnson became an attorney at a private practice for 11 years. He was a Municipal Court Judge from 1969 until 1980.
In the 1960s, Johnson was also instrumental in helping integrate Seattle Public Schools by holding demonstrations, meeting with the school board and facilitating freedom schools, which provided alternative education for Black children in churches.
“Over the years we’ve had to take step after step to try and make Seattle a more integrated and inclusive community,” Johnson said in the 2017 interview.
Outside of his work and activism, Johnson helped found the Black legal foundation, Loren Miller Bar Association in 1968, which connected the about 10 Black attorneys in Seattle at the time.
“When you think of Judge Johnson, he’s a trailblazer,” said James F. Johnson, president of Loren Miller Bar Association. “He’s a Jackie Robinson of his time.”
At the municipal court, Johnson was proud to have diversified the clerk’s office and ensured the hiring of more Black probation officers. He helped set up a payment plan for people to pay their fines in increments. In 1981, Johnson was appointed a Superior Court judge where he focused on felonies and juvenile crimes until he retired in 1998.
In his spare time, Johnson was a devout congregant at his church, where he helped manage building projects, outreach and system management.
When the Rev. Carey G. Anderson became First AME Church’s pastor in 2004, Johnson provided guidance to him as the vice chairman of the trustee board. “His wisdom and his insights helped the church chart a good course and he helped me in providing leadership,” Anderson said. “His impact was bigger than life.”
Johnson and his family donated $10,000 annually to the church’s scholarship fund, which has provided over $1 million to students, Anderson said. In 2011, the church created the nonprofit Martin Luther King FAME Community Center, which Johnson helped bolster through fundraising, outreach, as well as maintaining property and programs. Additionally, 30 years ago, Johnson helped start an annual law symposium — now the Judge Charles V. Johnson Youth and Law Forum — to introduce the church’s youth to career opportunities in law enforcement.
Church staff would regularly visit Johnson’s home to chat in his living room when his declining health prevented him from regularly attending services. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, church staff would call him weekly to check in.
“He was mild-mannered in some respects, stern in other respects. He had a comical side as well,” Anderson said. “He can make you laugh.”
Johnson’s sense of whimsy was seen in his fondness for turtle statuettes, which he received as gifts from friends and family and scattered throughout his home. He would often tell his children that turtles might be slow, but they accomplish their goals in their own time, recalled his son Jimm Brown.
“He taught me to believe in myself and to have an open mind,” Brown said.
Most important, Johnson taught his son the significance of providing service to others. “He was my North Star. He’s my moral compass.”
He is survived by his wife, Lazelle, and three children. His family will hold a private funeral soon, and a public memorial after the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewing hours will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Sunset Hills Funeral Home.