Black Protest Leader’s Son Charged In School Arson Father Led Protests Against Ban On Interracial Dating
The FBI arrested the son of a black protest leader Thursday and charged him with burning down an Alabama high school last August where a ban on interracial dating had inflamed racial tensions.
Christopher Lynn Johnson, 25, the son of the Rev. Emmett Johnson, was indicted for arson and for possession of an unregistered destructive device - a paper bag filled with kerosene-soaked dirt - that allegedly was used to start the fire at the Randolph County High School in rural Wedowee, Alabama, about 80 miles from Birmingham.
Before the fire, Emmett Johnson had formed an alternative “freedom school” for 160 black students who were boycotting classes at the high school. The boycott began in the spring of 1994 after the high school principal, Hulond Humphries, threatened to cancel the junior-senior prom if interracial couples planned to attend. Humphries also was accused of calling a mixed-race student’s birth “a mistake.”
Emmett Johnson also formed what he called a chapter of the Black Panther Militia, saying it was for “self defense.”
Emmett Johnson said that the high school represented “an era of racism” and should have been burned down. But he said his son was the victim of a frame-up.
“I know he didn’t do it,” Emmett Johnson said outside the Montgomery, Ala., courthouse after the son’s appearance before a magistrate. “Why would he do it?”
U.S. Attorney Redding Pitt said “the evidence led to Christopher Lynn Johnson,” and added that “his father is in fact involved, as he suggested that he was this morning. Those were not matters that we were prepared to talk about at this time … I think people can probably draw their own conclusions about it.”
The younger Johnson could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Federal prosecutors, who claimed jurisdiction in the arson case because the high school received federal funds, planned to ask that he be held without bail.
Pitt said the investigation is continuing. He would not say whether more arrests are expected.
The 60-year-old Randolph County High School was gutted by fire on Aug. 6, 1994, after months of racial tension. The prom eventually was held - along with an alternative dance for protesting students - but the school board balked at disciplining Humphries, who had been principal for 25 years.
Humphries said he was concerned about student safety when he spoke against mixed-race dating. He also denied making the “mistake” remark, but the school board settled a lawsuit over the alleged comment by paying the student $25,000.
After the fire, the school board removed Humphries as principal and put him in charge of rebuilding the school, where classes resumed in trailers. The U.S. Justice Department helped arrange a settlement that restricted Humphries’ contact with students.