tabacco.blog-city.com — January 2011
BHOF: Before Martin Luther King, There Was Vernon Johns, The Unknown Boat Rocker
BHOF: Black Hall Of Fame
Before Martin Luther King,
There Was Vernon Johns,
The Unknown Boat Rocker
Originally published February 12, 2006
Reissued September 19, 2010 (H: 7,745.. C: 2)
Reissued January 17, 2011 (H: 8,281, C: 2)
Tabacco inducts Vernon Johns, Civil Rights Activist & “Father of the Civil Rights Movement” into the Black Hall Of Fame.
Vernon Johns is referred to with reverence as the “Father of the Civil Rights Movement”. God must have wanted the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to figure prominently in the Civil Rights Movement because it seems, no matter who their pastor was, he was going to make waves, rock the boat and be a thorn in the side of southern bigots, their legal and social system of the 1960s, which codified segregation, racism and inequality.
The administrators, who ran the Negro Church, got rid of Vernon Johns to replace him with someone, who would “not rock the boat”. Martin Luther King was hired as his replacement – boy, what a shock they got.
Inductees into the Black Hall Of Fame (BHOF)
1 Robert Smalls
2 John Brown
3 Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture
4 Vernon Johns
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) was an American minister, and inspirational civil rights leader. He was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and a mentor of Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and a host of others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s circle. The father of the American Civil Rights Movement, he laid the foundation on which King and others would build.
Born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, in Prince Edward County. Johns served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1947 to 1952.
He died of a heart attack in Washington, D. C. in 1965.
A television film was made in 1994 called Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story, written by Leslie Lee and Kevin Arkadie, and based on an unpublished biography of Johns written by Henry W. Powell, of The Vernon Johns Society. The motion picture was directed by Kenneth Fink and starred James Earl Jones in the title role. Former NBA super-star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an African-American history buff, was the film’s co-executive producer.
Coretta Scott King (1969:95) wrote that, “My husband and Ralph Abernathy could sit for hours swapping stories about this outspoken minister who always gave his middle-class congregation a very hard time. According to Martin, Dr. Johns’ main purpose was to rock the complacency of the refined members of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — in whatever way he could.”
Johns’ influence on King was most evident at the level of ideas. “Martin was just fascinated with Vernon Johns,” according to Philip Lenud, King’s friend at Morehouse College and his roommate at Boston College, because “Johns was such a theological genius.” King felt that Johns “was complex, heavy, and funny,” and he and his friend Ralph Abernathy spent many hours exchanging humorous stories about how the outspoken Johns used to rock the complacency of the middle-class, refined members at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Much of the humor brought to King’s preaching was inspired by Johns. (Baldwin 1991:299-300)
The Vernon Johns Story (1994) TV
Directed by Kenneth Fink
Starring James Earl Jones as
This is must see for those who are unfamiliar with heroes of the Civil Rights Movement prior to Brown v. the Board of Education and Martin Luther King, Jr. James Earl Jones powerfully portrays a man with all of the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., but with a more blunt and direct approach. The film masterfully shows how a leader like Dr. King and those who worked with him would have not been as effective had it not been for leaders like Dr. Johns, who were willing to “push the envelope”. I teach Social Studies at Southern Nash High School in Bailey, North Carolina and I use this film regularly in class and get the best response to it of any of the films I show. In a film career that has featured numerous brilliant performances by Mr. Jones, I believe that this is his best work. The supporting cast of veteran actors Mary Alice, the late Joe Seneca, and a newcomer at the time, Nicole Leach, is top notch and they play effectively off of Jones.
“I want to know whether you want students with credits or students with brains,” said Vernon Johns in 1915 to the deputy dean of the Oberlin Theological Seminary (later renamed the Graduate School of Theology). Undaunted by a letter telling him that his credits were useless, Johns had come to the dean’s office and boldly announced that he was willing to start classes.
Johns was tested in the reading of Greek scripture by Edward Increase Bosworth, dean of the seminary. Johns passed the test with flying colors, and Bosworth admitted him on a trial basis. By the end of the semester Bosworth made Johns a regular student and helped him find part-time work as a preacher to support himself while he studied.
Vernon Johns, one of the pioneers of the civil-rights movement, was born in 1892 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. His parents did not have enough money to send him to school, so he educated himself while working. He was frequently seen plowing and reading at the same time. He was said to have a photographic memory, and he was able to recite long biblical passages, including the entire book of Romans. He taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and German.
Johns’ academic achievements at Oberlin soon made him a scholastic class leader, displacing Robert M. Hutchins. (The future president of the University of Chicago was a freshman in 1915 and left Oberlin in 1917). According to author Taylor Branch, Hutchins said it was impossible for a “country Negro” to make the grades Johns did without cheating. Johns responded to this attack by punching Hutchins in the mouth. The two eventually made up and remained friends for many years. Before his graduation in 1918, Johns was chosen to give the annual student oration at the Memorial Arch. He was highly respected by his classmates, and in later life he spoke of many positive experiences at Oberlin.
(Left: Click on the document to read a letter that Vernon Johns wrote to Oberlin Professor G.W. Fiske two years after Johns’ graduation.)
After graduating from Oberlin, Johns enrolled in the graduate school of theology at the University of Chicago. His success there and his reputation as an intellectual and a preacher brought him many job offers, in the pulpit as well as in the classroom. With his fiery temper, he did not keep any job for long.
He became a wandering preacher, lecturing and farming in the East and South. At this time liberal and fundamentalist preachers were debating issues ranging from biblical interpretation to the social responsibility of preachers. Johns, irritated because no black preachers were included in the debate and none of their sermons were being published, sent the works of his fellow preachers, Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman, to publishing houses. When they were rejected, Johns submitted a sermon of his own, “Transfigured Moments”. In 1926 it was the first work by a black preacher to be published in Best Sermons of the year.
Johns acquired a reputation as an eccentric. He would preach immediately after plowing, standing in the pulpit in dirty overalls with mud on his shoes. He would leave his family for months at a time to preach on the road, to farm, and to sell various knickknacks. He liked being able to travel light-sometimes packing all his belongings in a paper bag.
Church in Montgomery
In 1947 Johns found his way to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In spite of his eccentricities, its black-elite congregation liked his preaching and his leadership. Within two years, however, he started to speak out about racial issues and to castigate his congregation for ignoring them. He was critical of both the black and the white population of Montgomery.
Race was not a popular topic in the press in the late 194Os. It was assumed that black people would accept their position unquestioningly, but Johns started to make waves. He persuaded black women to bring charges in court against their white rapists, and he helped the women with their cases. No one was convicted, but just getting the white men into court was an achievement. Several years before 1955, when Rosa Parks made history by refusing to move to the back of the bus, Johns tried to sit in the white section. When the bus driver refused to let him, Johns demanded to have his fare back and got it. Johns was even bold enough to order food in an all-white restaurant.
Scolding the congregation
Members of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church congregation were increasingly discomfited by his behavior and by his criticism of them. He scolded them for being consumers unwilling to do manual work. He accused them of doing nothing while their race was being killed. Johns eventually offered his resignation, and the deacons accepted it after much debate. In 1952 Johns was once again a traveling preacher, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church searched for a more conservative preacher They found one two years later: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vernon Johns died in 1965 of a heart attack. He was a man ahead of his time in the civil-rights movement. Believing that all it took for evil to flourish was for good people to do nothing, he did something.
In 1990 Oberlin’s annual minority’s scholars’ day was renamed in honor of Vernon Johns.
Maelinda Turner, president of the class of 1991, wrote the paper on which this article is based for a private reading course with associate professor of black studies Adrienne Jones. Turner used material in the Oberlin College Archives and in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
Ralph E. Luker
Documenting Vernon Johns …
Apart from shepherding Cliopatria, my day job is preparing the Vernon Johns Papers for publication. So, you’ve never heard of him? It gets worse: his papers were twice destroyed. Not much of a day job, you say?
Well, first of all, Vernon Johns is best known as Martin Luther King’s predecessor as pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That’s how he’s featured in Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1989) and in Kenneth Fink’s made-for-television film “The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story” (1994). He ought to be known for more than that because, to my knowledge, he is the only figure who stands in the background both to the litigation leading to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the direct action of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. So, although it is the title of one of his best sermons rather than a claim that he made for himself, my working title is “The Man Who Started Freedom”.
No singly rational person would launch a Vernon Johns Papers Project. The man, himself, was careless with his documents. Notes for a sermon might be scratched out on whatever was at hand – a paper bag, an old letter, or notepaper – and might as readily be discarded. A house fire in 1943 destroyed whatever had accumulated in his first 50 years, and a careless tenant threw out whatever accumulated in the rest of his life. A decade after his death in 1965, his widow and a professional friend collaborated in a book of remnants: Samuel Lucius Gandy, ed., Human Possibilities: A Vernon Johns Reader, Including an Unfinished Book MS., sermons, essays, addresses, and a doggerel. The transcriptions and editing done there are so careless, however, that Johns appears at times to be incoherent, and the book is found only in about a half-dozen American libraries.
Consequently, my most time-consuming job has been in locating, transcribing, and editing whatever documents have otherwise survived, and I am one relentless researcher. He was careless and I am relentless. We have met our match, and we are us. The fact is that I have found a remarkable trove of survivors: a half-dozen taped speeches in remote archives, a treasury of old sermon notebooks at one of his former churches, a collection of sermons previously published as pamphlets, various articles published in obscure journals, two series of columns published in African American newspapers, and a number of letters to the editor. This manic researcher found most of those letters by pouring through 56 fat rolls of microfilm of the Montgomery Advertiser, but it was worth it. The really odd thing is that the white editors of the city’s primary newspaper allowed the pastor of its most prestigious black congregation to tell the newspaper’s white readers exactly what he thought they most needed to hear. For a sample document (pdf), see: here.
My subject, Vernon Johns, is an elusive character, at once sublimely learned and remarkably uncouth. He could preside at a fashionable wedding and then offend the newly-weds by hawking watermelons at their reception. He was born into a family that was the product of unspeakable violence. His white grandfather had owned his grandmother of color before the Civil War. She, rather than his white wife, bore his only children. When she sought a reunion with her slave husband after the war, however, Vernon Johns’ white grandfather violated her with a stick and she bled to death. He paid no penalty for that murder. Only later, when he killed a white field hand, was he sentenced to death by hanging. That whole story is one that was suppressed in the family memory or recalled in more palatable ways. So far as I can tell, Vernon Johns never once referred to his white grandfather in public, but the childhood memory of a white grandfather, who had murdered his grandmother of color runs as a submerged theme through all of his surviving documents. It goes far to explain why Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King’s predecessor as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, was the apostle of armed resistance. In his later years, he never traveled the South without a loaded weapon at hand, and he was a legendary character in the minds of Martin Luther King, Ralph D. Abernathy, and Wyatt Walker, the core leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Vernon Johns was born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, on April 22, 1892
He was a controversial figure who often spoke out against Blacks as well as Whites. Despite being a preacher, he was not a believer in non-violence and believed in taking whatever action is necessary to achieve God-given or civil rights.
He became the preacher of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1948 and often upset its very conservative congregation. Titles of his sermons included “Segregation After Death”, “Constructive (or Creative) Homicide”, and “When The Rapist Is White”.
He strongly opposed segregation, on one occasion he refused to move into the ‘Colored’ section of a bus he was riding, and on another, walked into a ‘White’ restaurant and ordered a sandwich, knowing fully that he was putting his life at risk in doing so.
In 1949 following a string of murders and other violent acts against blacks, Johns changed the name of his planned sermon to “It Is Safe To Kill Negroes In Montgomery”. This outraged the white community and led to him being summoned before the grand jury.
He believed that Black people should support each other economically and encouraged the Black people of Montgomery to sell produce such as fruit and vegetables to each other, instead of buying goods from the White man. He would sell fruit, vegetables and even fish to the congregation.
Over time, his relationship with the board of deacons became increasingly strained and on several occasions, he resigned his position. The final straw came when he drove onto the campus of Alabama State University and sold a truckload of watermelons. The deacons were highly upset, and the church finally accepted his fifth resignation.
Vernon Johns moved back to Virginia, and in 1953 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church finally appointed their new preacher, a young man by the name of Martin Luther King.
T.A.B.A.C.C.O. (Truth About Business And Congressional Crimes Organization)
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