Civil rights attorneys to be honored with statue at courthouse

Marilyn Tennissen Jun. 27, 2007, 10:10am

In the mid-1950s, law partners Elmo Willard III and Theodore Johns Sr. sued the city of Beaumont to open its recreational facilities and libraries to blacks and then sued Lamar Tech, now Lamar University, to open its doors to black students.

For those outstanding actions and their lifelong work in the legal profession, the Jefferson County Courthouse will soon be home to a statue in their likeness.

"Jefferson County is in the midst of a transitional period. As its citizens and businesses move to accept the challenges that the 21st century's socioeconomics present, we need to never forget the courage and conviction of the citizens that made true personal sacrifices for the good of this community," Beaumont attorney Michael Jamail wrote in a letter to the Jefferson County Commissioners Court. "It is time for this county to recognize and acknowledge two attorneys � Elmo R. Willard III and Theodore R. Johns Sr. � who helped make this courthouse and our area a socially fairer and morally more honest community."

The Commissioners unanimously approved the statue at the June 25 court meeting.

Jamail, who with attorneys Gilbert Low and Wayne Reaud agreed to pay for the statue, said the courthouse was a fitting location for the honor to Willard and Johns.

Courthouses, Jamail said, are the center of local change and where all citizens can exercise their right to vote, their right to jury service, their right to attend public forums and their right to have their civil and criminal grievances addressed.

"There is no better place for a community to honor an individual than at the county courthouse because that is where citizens can and should be able to feel truly equal," Jamail said.

Theo Johns graduated from Howard University in 1951. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea, he came to Beaumont and began to practice law.

Elmo Willard graduated from Howard University in 1954, and then he and Johns formed the law firm of Johns & Willard. For the next 20 years, the two men took on high profile and controversial civil rights cases.

"At great personal sacrifice and risk, Elmo Willard and Theo James eventually opened the doors of this courthouse and other public facilities to all citizens of Jefferson County," Jamail said. "One way of acknowledging the fruits of their labor is to give Mr. Willard and Mr. Johns a place of honor at this courthouse. In doing so, every citizen who walks through the courthouse doors can be reminded of Mr. Willard's and Mr. Johns' sacrifice."

Johns still practices law and serves as a Beaumont municipal court judge. Willard died in 1991.

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