I. S. Leevy Johnson ‘68 is a legal giant in South Carolina and noteworthy for many firsts, including being the first Black student since Reconstruction to complete all three years of law school at the University of South Carolina. This year, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the second annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. event held at the law school.
Throughout his address Johnson stressed how his journey is a continuation of the fight for civil rights in South Carolina, highlighting a few of the individuals who paved the way for his acceptance to and eventual graduation from the law school. He spoke passionately about John H. Wrighten and his attorney Harold Boulware, who sued the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees in 1947 for admittance to the law school. He also referenced Henrie Monteith, Robert G. Anderson, and James Solomon, and their attorney Matthew Perry who successfully fought to desegregate the university in 1963.
Johnson has earned an impressive number of accolades since graduating, including the law school’s Compleat Lawyer Award, the South Carolina Bar Foundation’s DuRant Award, and the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. In 2022, he was honored for his lifetime of achievements with a portrait that hangs in the law school’s Coleman Karesh Reading Room. Johnson urged visitors to his likeness to look beyond the surface.
“If you go look at that portrait you will see an image of me, but what I really want you to realize is... it is a symbol: of John H. Wrighten, Matthew Perry, Lincoln Jenkins, Ernest [A.] Finney [Jr.], all the lawyers who dedicated their lives to fighting injustice,” Johnson says. “They made it possible.”
Johnson stated that injustice is “pervasive and real” and that there are many who still do not have all the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. He insisted that advancing equity is the responsibility of all.
“There is no perfect solution to fighting injustice. To correct these injustices, the fight that lawyers advance is crucial. We must have lawyers combatting all the injustices that exist in America today,” Johnson says. "Each of you can be an active member of the effort.”
Following his remarks, two Columbia-based legal organizations received awards for upholding King’s legacy. Burnette Shutt & McDaniel PA received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award for serving as tireless advocates for civil rights in South Carolina. The recipient of the Keeper of the Dream Award was nonprofit SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center for their unwavering commitment to King's vision of civil rights and social justice for marginalized communities.
After the awards ceremony attendees were invited to view an exhibit featuring artifacts from several notable Black South Carolina civil rights figures, including Johnson. The exhibit was made possible through a collaboration with the Center for Civil Rights History and Research who also co-sponsored the event.
“The Center is proud to have worked with Mr. Johnson to acquire his papers for the South Carolina Political Collections housed in the Hollings Special Collections Library,” says Monique Lyle, Ph.D., deputy director for the Center and executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It is because of persons like Mr. Johnson, his grandfather I. S. Leevy, and the many heroes of the civil rights movement in South Carolina – known and unknown – that I and many of you are able to be here today and contribute to the work of preserving and promoting their important legacies.”
The next day, the Rice School of Law’s Black Law Student Association held a community service event, demonstrating the law school’s commitment to King’s mission of service. Participants volunteered with two local nonprofits: Midlands Orphan Relief, helping to pack and sort donations at their distribution center and Keep the Midlands Beautiful, helping to clean up Greene Street and the neighborhood adjacent to MLK Park.
Johnson’s keynote address titled “The Trumpet of Conscience: The Role of Lawyers in the Fight for Justice” directly references King’s collection of sermons titled “The Trumpet of Conscience,” republished posthumously in 1968, the same year Johnson earned his law degree.