During his unsuccessful 1931 and 1935 races for the Mississippi governorship, Paul Burney Johnson Sr. called himself the Champion of the Runt Pig People, and in his winning 1939 campaign he promised to bring New Deal measures to the state. 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, pledging, “I will never balance the budget at the expense of suffering humanity.”
Johnson was born into a poor farm family, and he readily identified with Mississippi’s “redneck” dirt farmers, sharecroppers, and day laborers. When he became a lawyer he vowed to “save a little from everything I made.” He saved some of bills he received as payment for his first law case for the rest of his life.
Born in Hillsboro in Scott County on 23 March 1880, Johnson studied law at Millsaps College and opened a successful law practice in Hattiesburg in 1903. After a four-year term as city judge, he was appointed a judge of the 12th Circuit, and he was subsequently elected to the court in 1911 and 1915.
In 1918 Johnson defeated Theodore Bilbo in the contest to represent Mississippi’s 6th District in the US House of Representatives. After serving three terms in Congress, Johnson did not seek reelection and began to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming governor of Mississippi. After two unsuccessful campaigns, Johnson achieved his dream in 1939 and was inaugurated on 16 January 1940.
Johnson was skeptical of the Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) program and took steps to curtail industrial expansion in Mississippi. His legislative program emphasized more direct measures to increase the purchasing power of the state’s poor and unemployed workers. Among his two most important achievements were an increase in pensions for senior citizens and a law providing free textbooks for schoolchildren. Both measures provoked controversy: in particular, opponents of free textbooks accused Johnson of socializing Mississippi and claimed that the state’s involvement in the textbook business would undermine the free enterprise system.
Johnson was ill during much of his administration, and the long and bitter struggle over the textbook bill put an enormous strain on him and his family. His health declined rapidly in late 1943, and Gov. Johnson died on 26 December. Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg is named in his honor.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Jackson Daily News (27 December 1943)
- Jackson State Times (6 December 1959)
- Thomas E. Kelly, Who’s Who in Mississippi (1914)