Johnson 1979.jpg

William P. Johnson is second from left in the back row.

William P. Johnson, chief U.S. district judge for New Mexico, said in a written statement last week he regrets having appeared in two photographs “where others made the wrong decision to display the Confederate flag” while he was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute in the late 1970s.

Johnson provided his written comments in response to questions from The New Mexican about photos from the 1978 and 1979 editions of the school’s yearbook, The Bomb, which depict him and other members of the College Republicans club formally posing with a Confederate flag.

“I do not recall these photographs being taken, yet I am in these two images,” Johnson wrote in a statement, adding the photographs appear to have been taken during his freshman and sophomore years. He wrote he believes the cadets holding the flag in front of the group were upperclassmen.

“I do not know or remember the individuals holding the flag in either photo,” Johnson wrote, “yet I regret that, when I was 18, 19 or maybe 20, I appeared in two photographs where others made the wrong decision to display the Confederate flag.

“The Confederate flag obviously represents slavery, oppression, racial injustice and inequality,” Johnson added. “I have never owned a Confederate flag, yet as someone who grew up in Virginia, I can say that four decades ago attitudes towards the Confederate flag were more cavalier. I believe this lax attitude stemmed from the fact many white Americans, like myself, did not at that time fully understand or appreciate what the confederate flag represented to African Americans.”

The Confederate flag and other symbols from the South have come under withering scrutiny as the nation renews discussions about race in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis. The state flag of Mississippi includes a Confederate emblem, and lawmakers there are pushing to change it. NASCAR recently banned the Confederate flag from its events.

Johnson, 61, originally agreed to be interviewed about the photographs taken when he was a college student, but he later changed his mind and said the written statement would be all he had to say on the matter.

Eric D. Dixon, a Portales civil rights attorney, said in a recent interview he came across the Virginia Military Institute yearbook photos while doing research on the Civil War and was disturbed by what he saw.

“I represent African American plaintiffs in this area, and I just think it’s outrageous anybody would appear in front of the Confederate flag knowing what it stands for,” Dixon said. “It’s as bad as standing in front of a swastika as far as I’m concerned.”

Virginia Military Institute is sometimes referred to as the “West Point of the South.” It was founded before the Civil War, in 1839 in Lexington, Va., and its graduates include Gen. George C. Marshall, a key architect of the Allied victory in World War II and later a U.S. secretary of state.

The school was racially integrated in 1968 but was the last U.S. military college to admit women, which it did in 1997 as a result of a Supreme Court order that followed a six-year legal battle over the issue.

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Col. William Wyatt, Virginia Military Institute’s director of communications, said in a recent phone interview the school phased out the playing of “Dixie” in the 1970s and stopped using the Confederate flag in the 1990s.

First-year cadets were required to salute a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson until 2015. Since then, Wyatt said, cadets have been required to salute the U.S. flag.

The statue of Jackson still stands at Virginia Military Institute, and Wyatt said the school has since included more information about Jackson’s role in the Civil War through a brochure handed out by the school’s museum.

The Roanoke Times reported earlier this month a recent graduate of the school started a petition June 4 calling for the statue’s removal and asked Virginia Military Institute to “acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs” at the school.

According to the U.S. District Court’s website, Johnson graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1981 and accepted a commission in the U.S. Army Reserve before earning his law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law in 1985.

He began his judicial career in New Mexico in 1995 as a state district judge in the 5th Judicial District in Roswell.

In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Johnson to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for New Mexico, which has a sizable role in the justice system because the state sits on an international boundary and includes large swaths of federal land, as well as a patchwork of Native American reservations. Johnson became chief judge of the district, which includes courthouses in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Roswell, in 2018.

According to online transcripts, when asked during his confirmation hearing to cite examples of times in his judicial career that he’d demonstrated commitment to equal rights for all, Johnson cited his work on behalf of abused and neglected children.

In his statement, Johnson defended his work on the bench, noting he took an oath to administer justice in an impartial manner.

“As a judge under the Constitution and laws of the United States … that is the standard under which I have lived and worked since becoming a judge and that is the standard I intend to follow for the remainder of my service as a federal judge,” he wrote.

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(16) comments

Wayne Baker

I have appeared before this Judge on numerous occasions. He is a skilled and extremely fair jurist. He attended and graduated from VMI 40 years ago. He is not a racist and to suggest otherwise is foolish.

Mark Stahl

I’m not sure what this story has to do with the governor. She must be renting space in some peoples’ heads. More to the point, this is an prime example of white privilege. Do something stupid at 20 and go on to be a federal judge. People of color do something stupid at 20 and pay for it the rest of their lives.

Orlando Baca

The article is a waste of paper and ink. Stop with the divisiveness!

John Haynes

The person who ‘exposed’ the judge, the reporter who reported it, and the editor who printed it are sick and twisted. A cadet at VMI standing in front of a confederate flag when he was 20? Do you remember what you were like when you were 20? People mature. But a sick, twisted individual googles through who knows how many sites until he finds a target he can tar in our present sick times. And a sick and twisted reporter and editor enable this sick, twisted muck thrower. I hope all of you had fun. Some of you will, I suspect, promptly see if you can find something on me. (Hint, go back to my high school days.) That is your sick and twisted mentality. Have fun!

Khal Spencer

At my freshman year Halloween party at the Univ. of Rochester back in 1972, I had only what I could fit into a Frontier Laundry bag as clothing so I stripped the bed in my dorm room and showed up in a hooded sheet. Headed over to get a glass of beer at the party and ran into another fake klansman. A Black freshman with a similar lack of resources. If someone can find the picture I'd actually love to see it.

The seventies were a different time. Does anyone think anyone could make Blazing Saddles today and not stir up a political sh*t storm?

Mark Ortiz

Mr. Haynes, "Do you remember what you were like when you were 20?" Yes, I do. I remember then as I do today, that don’t have white supremacist proclivities and that that treasonous vile flag represents pro-slavery. I remember that even that way back then. Apparently, you fall into U.S. Federal Chief Judge Johnson's camp. Your views are sad, and that it's not that Johnson can't Cowboy up as some of ya'll like to say and not play the victim here, it's the conspirators behind this "HIT" job that should be lynched. Your stance is as spineless as him. Oh, but don't worry your big ol' noggin full of ego, the tastemakers on this web site won't waste a second trying to out you, you did that for us (me) and besides, is John Haynes really that special?

Khal Spencer

From the article. "...Col. William Wyatt, Virginia Military Institute’s director of communications, said in a recent phone interview the school phased out the playing of “Dixie” in the 1970s and stopped using the Confederate flag in the 1990s. First-year cadets were required to salute a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson until 2015. ...."

I agree, John. This is cancel culture at its worst. Someone growing up immersed in a culture that still saluted General Jackson often has to get out of that culture to examine it critically. Its called education, and clearly, the judge at sixty one is not the same man as the undergrad at ninteen.

I had a friend, since deceased, who taught at the University of Toronto. John Furedy and I met when we were both active in intercampus speech code politics in the 1990's in the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and the American National Association of Scholars and later Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. John stated that the purpose of education was to force us out of our comfort zones and make us look painfully at ourselves. Clearly a southern military school that still flew the Confederate battle flag and saluted Jackson was not critically examining itself or helping its students take a long look in the cultural mirror. But that was almost half a century ago.

I think this newspaper ought to be ashamed of itself for the handling of this story. It is, again, cancel culture at its worst. It would be beneath the judge's dignity to discuss this further with the New Mexican.

David Martinez

That is not the Confederate flag, it's General Lee's battle flag.

Khal Spencer

Good catch. That was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Nicoletta Munroe

Should we review this person's record as a judge? He was appointed by a conservative President. Are the opinions issued from this judge representative of a fair process or not? The newspaper is attempting to lynch this person, and I would argue in a court of law that printing the photograph is an invasion of privacy. Because the judge first agreed to an interview with the newspaper there is an air of diplomacy and transparency.

Khal Spencer

Cancel culture at its best, Nicoletta.

Paul Branch

Disqualifying.

It’s a traitor flag.

BOB SCHWARTZ

so what he means is he regrets be exposed with the photo. Although mental perceptions do change over time, it is clear in 202 is that statues are being town down of 16th century persons whos acts hundreds of years ago still rile many.

Khal Spencer

This is not 1970 and the judge is no longer 20. Get over it unless you want someone to find pictures of stuff you did when you were a sophomore in college.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Yes, I would like for some of Mich's college friends to tell more people what kind of things she did in college and high school......please.

Richard Reinders

She probably smoked pot but she will say she didn't inhale.

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