What is legal is not always right. What is right is not always legal. This has been my mantra to elected officials and others for many years. It was my mantra to one elected official for more than 30 years. Before I share more about this elected official, allow me to illustrate the truth of this mantra: Segregation laws were legal, but they were not right. Violating these laws was right but not legal. Enough said!
Now back to the elected official. I have known Johnny Jackson for nearly 40 years. I was close to his family over the years, often eating at his mother’s home when she was alive. I really began working closely with Johnny Jackson in 1978, helping him incorporate the White Hall area into a town. He was never paid for his time and effort. I was never paid for mine.
I served as the attorney for the town from its incorporation in 1979 to 1986. As I recall, I was never paid for my services as town attorney because White Hall had no funds to pay. As I recall, Johnny Jackson was never paid for his services as mayor during this time for the same reason. I personally know that Mayor Jackson was not paid his mayoral salary from 2000 to the day he resigned in 2009. What is legal is not always right, and what is right is not always legal.
I know first hand that Johnny Jackson did everything possible to help the Town of White Hall. As a result of his efforts, its citizens are far better off. One way he tried to help was through bingo. He conceived two Constitutional Amendments. I steered both through the Alabama Legislature, with the people of Alabama voting statewide for one and the citizens of Lowndes County voting for the other.
Some years ago, the Town of White Hall was trying to secure land for a bingo facility that cost $300,000. The town could not borrow or otherwise secure the full sum. Johnny Jackson personally borrowed money against his Black Farmers money so the town could purchase the land. He did not have the town sign any documents, he just acted. What is right is not always legal, and what is legal is not always right.
When the land was sold to a bingo entity, the bank loan was paid off and the balance of $43,000 made out to White Hall. It was the money with interest that Johnny Jackson borrowed to help complete the land purchase. He deposited the check in another account, not in the White Hall account. Other town officials were informed of the transaction. Legally he should have deposited the money in the town’s account and had them reimburse him. What is right is not always legal, and what is legal is not always right.
The Alabama Attorney General had been investigating Johnny Jackson for years. Every transaction was scrutinized; every document examined. After years of investigation, he was charged based on the land purchase transaction, with two felony counts. Each charge carried a punishment of 2-20 years upon conviction.
With the trial drawing near, the Attorney General offered a deal: they would drop the two felony charges if Johnny Jackson would plead to a misdemeanor; accept a one year sentence; apply for probation without opposition from their office; pay the $43,000 to White Hall; resign from office; and not run for public office for at least two years. What is legal is not always right, and what is right is not always legal.
Mayor Jackson has been a fighter all his life, but he agonized over this offer for days. I thought he would win before a jury of his Lowndes County peers, but there was no guarantee. I expected my opening and closing statements to begin with the words, “What is right is not always legal, and what is legal is not always right.”
Mayor Jackson also believed he could win the case but realized there is no guarantee. More importantly, he was worried over what a trial would do to White Hall. After years of investigation and more than a year under formal charges, it came down to this moment for the only mayor the town has ever known during the 30 years of its existence.
In addition to serving as mayor, Johnny Jackson served as a part-time teacher at a day care center for the last 29 years and continues to do so. He also drove the school bus, delivering Lowndes County’s precious children to and from school for the last 14 years and continues to do so. Both are part of his service.
On Monday, October 5, 2009, I picked up Mayor Jackson on the way to the Lowndes County Courthouse. I studiously avoided telling him what I thought he should or should not do. The decision had to be his alone. I could sense that he had already made up his mind. Even then, he was more concerned about the Town of White Hall than himself. After a while he shared his decision: He would accept the plea deal and step down as mayor. What is legal is not always right. What is right is not always legal.
EPILOGUE – I used to think that people who tried to do right were rewarded in this life. I have now lived long enough to know otherwise. Still, I am pained when someone tries to do right and is penalized. I must accept that it is just that way sometimes.
About the author: Hank Sanders is a long-time contributor to the Capital City Free Press and represents the people of the 23rd Senate District in the Alabama Legislature.