Judge who ordered desegregation in Oklahoma City Public Schools dies

Sunday, July 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The judge who ordered the desegregation of Oklahoma City Public Schools in 1963 has died. He was 100.

U.S. District Judge Luther Lee Bohanon, a civil rights champion, died Friday.

Bohanon's son, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard Bohanon, said his father received death threats and had his home vandalized after the controversial decision that caused cross-town busing of students.

``It took a lot of guts,'' Richard Bohanon said. ``I admired him so much and his belief in the law.''

Bohanon was born in Fort Smith, Ark., and grew up with 13 siblings in Kinta, a small town in Haskell County. He later moved to Muskogee.

He attended the University of Oklahoma law school and started a practice in 1929 with Alfred P. Murrah, who also became a federal judge.

President John F. Kennedy appointed Bohanon to the federal bench. A bust of Bohanon was placed at the Oklahoma City federal courthouse in 2001. U.S. District Judge David Russell presided over the ceremony.

``I didn't always agree with (Bohanon) but I admired him for his courage and independence,'' Russell said. ``He was a person that did what he thought was right without regard to the personal consequences he might suffer, and he suffered a lot of them.''

Most of those consequences arose from Bohanon' ruling on integration.

The case started when a black optometrist named A.L. Dowell sued Oklahoma City Public Schools because his son was denied admission to the all-white Northeast High School.

Bohanon ruled that the city had ``separate but equal'' schools that segregated students by race. The ruling led to a forced-busing program that many parents blamed on Bohanon.

After the decision, Bohanon received harassing telephone calls almost daily. Federal marshals stayed at his home on occasion and garbage and excrement were dumped on his lawn.

Bohanon was also hanged in effigy by a group of Oklahoma City residents.

In other decisions, Bohanon took control of the state's prison system in 1972 and forced sweeping changes to improve conditions.

Richard Bohanon said he hopes his father is remembered ``as one who had the courage to express his belief and convictions without fear.''

Luther Bohanon is survived by his son and three grandsons. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the United Methodist Church of Nichols Hills.