When Paul B. Johnson, Jr. was inaugurated as Mississippi’s fifty-fourth governor on January 21, 1964, he became the only son of a Mississippi governor to follow his father to the state’s highest office.
“Little Paul,” as he was fondly known among his supporters, was born at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on January 23, 1916. He received an undergraduate degree and, in 1939, a law degree from the University of Mississippi. During his father’s term in office, he was married in the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion.
Shortly after his discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps, Johnson first ran for public office in 1947. Actually, he ran for two different offices. Johnson was defeated in the August Democratic primary election in his first bid for the governorship. In a November special election to fill the unexpired term of the recently deceased Senator Theodore Bilbo, Johnson was defeated by John C. Stennis. He served as assistant U. S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi from 1948 to 1951. He again ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1951 and in 1955. In 1959, Johnson was elected lieutenant governor in the first primary.
During the Meredith integration crisis at Ole Miss in Oxford, Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson (1960-1964) supported Governor Barnett’s defiance of the U. S. Supreme Court. On one occasion, he stood in the middle of University Avenue and personally blocked Meredith’s entrance onto the Ole Miss campus. From that incident came the phrase “Stand Tall With Paul,” one of the most famous campaign slogans in Mississippi history. Johnson ran for governor in 1963 on that slogan and defeated former governor J. P. Coleman in a run-off election.
In his inaugural address, Governor Johnson encouraged the people of Mississippi to accept the changes that were occurring throughout the South and the nation and pledged that law and order would prevail in Mississippi. He urged the people of Mississippi not to “fight a rear guard defense of yesterday” but to conduct “an all out assault on our share of tomorrow.”
A practical politician, Johnson delivered on his inaugural promises. Black voting rights had long been trampled under Mississippi’s discriminatory voter registration laws. Within a year of his inauguration and encouraged by Governor Johnson, some county election officials began to register Black voters. And, during a special session of the Mississippi Legislature in June-July 1965, the legislature repealed the state’s discriminatory voting laws. After this act, plus the August passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, registration of Black voters soared.
During Governor Johnson’s administration, Mississippi reached a milestone in its economic development. In May 1965, the number of Mississippians employed in industry exceeded the number of agricultural workers for the first time in the state’s history. The balance between agriculture and industry had been achieved.
In 1967, while he held the office of governor, Paul Johnson conducted an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor. After that defeat, he returned to his law practice in Hattiesburg and eventually assumed the role of elder statesman of Mississippi politics. Governor Johnson died at his home in Hattiesburg on October 14, 1985.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1964-1968), 26.
Paul B. Johnson Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
McLemore, Richard Aubrey. A History of Mississippi, Vol. II. Jackson 1973