Friends and colleagues remembered Judge Clifton Johnson as a family man who cared deeply about his community, an avid golfer with a penchant for competition as well as jokes.
They also spoke of his integrity and love for the judicial bench.
Hundreds gathered Wednesday for Johnson’s memorial service at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, including some of the state’s most prominent judges, attorneys and politicians.
Johnson, 67, died June 25 after suffering a heart attack in Asheville, where he had gone to attend a judges conference.
N.C. Superior Court Judge Linwood Foust, who also attended the conference, said he played golf with Johnson hours before he died. Johnson shot an 83, he said, “an honest 83.”
Foust said Johnson was set to have dinner with other judges that evening but returned to his room instead, joking that the others, after playing golf in the June heat, were “ripe.”
“He enjoyed his life,” Foust told the crowd. “He was a happy man when God reached down and plucked him up… He lived the life he wanted to live.”
Foust said Johnson loved the law and being around other judges.
“He was the person I talked to in the middle of the night,” he said. “He’s a person I will always remember.”
Joe Allison, one of Johnson’s longtime friends, said they both were members of Charlotte Golfing Seniors, a golf club for African American couples.
“He would start out on the first tee telling jokes,” Allison said, “and he’d keep you laughing till the eighteenth hold.”
On the golf course, Allison said, Johnson was a stickler for rules: “He was the judge and the jury.”
Friends remembered Johnson as a trailblazer – the first African American hired as an assistant state prosecutor since the 19th Century, the first African American District Court judge in Mecklenburg County (1969), the first African American appointed chief District Court judge (1974) and the first African American resident Superior Court judge for North Carolina (1977).
Johnson was appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals in 1982 and rose to the rank of senior associate judge, the first for an African American.
He retired from the bench in 1996 to care for his wife, Brenda, who had become ill and later died. The couple was married 43 years.
Johnson returned to the bench in 2008 as a Court of Appeals recall judge and as an emergency Superior Court judge.
Congressman Mel Watt of Charlotte said he was leaving the House floor when someone pulled him aside with news of Johnson’s death. He said he had long respected Johnson for his decision to leave the bench to care for his ailing wife. Watt called it “a profound statement of how much (Johnson) loved his family.”
Gloria Rembert, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, said Johnson also loved his community and was active in the organization for years, even as others fell away during difficult times.
“The black Political Caucus has lost a wonderful friend, advocate and peacemaker,” she said.
Whatever the problem, Rembert said, Johnson saw himself as part of the solution. She remembered him as a “consummate professional” who sought to bring people and ideas together, always careful to hear all sides and make all feel included.
“We shall say his name often and remember how he worked to improve this organization,” she said in an emotion-filled tribute.
N.C. Appeals Court Judge Jim Wynn recalled growing up with Johnson “in the tobacco fields” of Martin County in eastern North Carolina. He called Johnson a “man of a man” who never used his toughness to bully others.
“Some people, if you get in trouble, will throw you a life raft,” he said. “Cliff Johnson would jump in the water for you, and come get you.”
Johnson graduated from North Carolina Central University Law School and remained one of its major supporters.
“Yale Law School has Clarence Thomas; we have Clifton Johnson,” said Raymond Pierce, dean of N.C. Central’s law school. “I know the dean at Yale, and I believe that to this day he is jealous of me… Cliff Johnson not only brought honor to this law school, he brought honor to his profession.”