During his 1931 and 1935 races for governor, Paul Burney Johnson Sr. called himself the “Champion of the Runt Pig People,” and in his successful campaign of 1939, he promised to inaugurate several New Deal measures in the state of Mississippi. In supporting government programs for the poor and unemployed, Johnson explained that he was trying to give the common people their fair share of the nation’s wealth and pledged, “I will never balance the budget at the expense of suffering humanity.”
Johnson was born into a poor farm family and readily identified with Mississippi’s tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and day laborers. When he became a lawyer, he said he vowed to “save a little from everything I made.” He saved some of the fee from his first law case and kept some of the dollar bills from that case for the rest of his life.
Born in Hillsboro in Scott County, Mississippi, on March 23, 1880, Johnson completed his early education at Harperville Academy in Scott County and then studied law at Millsaps College. He opened a law practice at Hattiesburg in 1903. After a four-year term as city judge, he was appointed judge of the twelfth circuit and was subsequently elected to the office in 1911 and 1915.
In 1918, Johnson defeated Theodore Bilbo for the U. S. Congress from the sixth district. After serving three congressional terms, Johnson did not seek re-election. He began the pursuit of a life-long dream of becoming governor of Mississippi. After two unsuccessful campaigns, Johnson achieved his dream in 1939 and was inaugurated governor on January 16, 1940.
Governor Johnson was skeptical of the Balance Agriculture With Industry program and took steps to curtail industrial expansion in Mississippi. He considered economic incentives to industry as a “trickle down” approach to economic recovery. His legislative program emphasized more direct measures to increase the purchasing power of Mississippi’s poor and unemployed workers.
Among his most important achievements were an increase in the pensions for Mississippi’s senior citizens and a law providing free textbooks for Mississippi’s school children. Both measures were very controversial, especially the textbook law. The opponents of free textbooks accused Governor Johnson of socializing the state of Mississippi and claimed that the state’s involvement in the textbook business would undermine the free enterprise system.
Governor Johnson’s term in office covered three years of World War II and much of his time was occupied with events covering Mississippi’s part in it.
During much of his administration, Governor Johnson was ill and the long and bitter struggle over the textbook bill put an enormous strain on him and his family. During the Christmas season of 1943, his health declined rapidly and Governor Johnson died December 26, 1943. The Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg is named in honor of Mississippi’s forty-sixth governor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1379.
Obituary, Jackson Daily News, December 27, 1943.
Biographical Sketch, Jackson State Times, December 6, 1959.
Kelly, Thomas E. Who’s Who In Mississippi, 51.
Paul B. Johnson Sr. Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.