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.
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.