Ben F. Johnson Jr. began his career as a lawyer after graduating from Emory University and practiced with Sutherland, Tuttle & Brennan, now Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, until World War II brought him three years of duty as a Naval intelligence officer stationed in the South Pacific.
After the war, Johnson earned a L.L.M. at Duke University and then joined Emory University’s law faculty in 1946. He taught state tax, a field that even now is considered specialized. His teaching was enriched by six years of service as a deputy attorney general specializing in state tax litigation. He is listed as counsel in more than 50 cases before the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
While teaching, he made a significant mark as a lawyer firmly grounded in both the academic and practical aspects of the profession. From 1961 to 1973, he served as the fourth dean of Emory University School of Law.
In 1962, in the case of Emory University v. Nash, Johnson and Henry Bowden Sr. to successfully challenge Georgia’s racist law that denied state tax exemptions to integrated private schools. This opened the way for Emory and other schools to admit minority students without imperiling their tax-exempt status.
In time, Johnson’s efforts to bring racial and gender diversity to Emory Law saw the graduation of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington Sr., U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper and U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans. In 1966, he sought foundation support for a program that helped black students enter the legal profession.
In 1962, Johnson was elected to a state senate seat representing DeKalb County. He served in the Legislature until 1969 and is best known for his work as the principal author of the legislation creating the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
Johnson was especially concerned about educational opportunities for those who were not privileged by wealth or family circumstances. As someone who had worked his way through college during the Great Depression, briefly attending Georgia State when it was Georgia Institute of Technology’s Evening School of Commerce, he earned an early appreciation for flexible, student-centered, part-time education.
As dean of Emory Law in the early 1970s, Johnson presided over the elimination of its part-time evening program, a step believed to be necessary for Emory’s rise to national prominence among law schools. At the same time, he knew that students would suffer.
So at age 67, when many would look to retire, he was invited by then-President Noah Langdale and Vice President William Suttles to become the founding dean of a school at Georgia State University, he accepted the challenge. Johnson knew it would make possible the return of ABA-accredited, part-time legal education to Atlanta and enable part-time students to obtain a first-class legal education.
He served as dean at Georgia State (1981-1985) until he had recruited a founding faculty, admitted its first students and secured its provisional accreditation by the ABA.
Ben F. Johnson, Jr.