The Road to Freedom:

The Vernon Johns Story (1994)

 

 

 

Director:    Kenneth Fink.

Starring:  Cast: James Earl Jones (Vernon Johns), Mary Alice (Altona), Garland Bunting (Counterman), Moses Gibson (Deacon Henderson), Tommy Hollis (Coach Hill), Joe Inscoe (Policeman), Clifton James (Judge Blake), Nicole Leach (Baby Dee), Joe Seneca (Deacon Wilkes), Sam Wells (Serviceman), Frank Taylor (Bus Driver), Billie Allen (Ida Rawlins), Eric Ware (Martin Luther King Jr.).

The story of the father of the civil rights movement, Vernon Johns.  Still seen as too "radical" by the still racist United States, but all he ever wanted was equality between the races.

Vernon Johns was the minister who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of a Montgomery, Alabama Baptist Church. He was a brilliant, challenging and provoking speaker who tirelessly worked for civil rights.

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

"Before the civil rights movement could begin, it would take the actions of a few brave souls to start that movement into motion. This is a story of one of them."

The Rev. Vernon Johns waits by the roadside to get a ride from a passing vehicle. He gets a ride in a pickup truck.

One of his daughters, Baby Dee (short for Baby Dearest), says: "My father never stayed in one place for long. He was a restless man and one of God's most angry and brilliant preachers. He was the kind of man who said exactly what was on his mind no matter what the consequences. And there was never a day that I didn't fear would brings news of his death. In the summer of 1948 it was the possibility of a good job, so my father came south to join the family in Montgomery, Alabama. Back then Montgomery was a sleepy, little Confederate town, mean in spirit. He had arranged to meet the deacons of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church at the Montgomery courthouse. The deacons only knew of my father's reputation as one of the great colored preachers of the times. Other aspects of his reputation, however, had not reached the good deacons of Dexter."

Deacon Wilkes, a mortician, walks right past Vernon Johns, probably because he is dressed more like a farmer than a preacher. Vernon Johns shouts out to the deacon. They meet.  Then Wilkes introduces Deacon Henderson and Deacon Hill, the football coach at Alabama State. Hill asks Johns if he can take his luggage. Johns hands Hill a paper bag, which is all the luggage Vernon Johns has. Hill is rather shocked at this.

Deacon Wilkes brags about the distinguished congregation that the Deacon Avenue Baptist Church has. When they go through the poor part of the black community, Wilkes points out that these people are not Deacon Avenue people. "We are only as great as the least of us", says Johns.

Johns arrives home and greets his children. He hasn't seen his wife in six months. Altona Johns is a professor of music at Alabama State College (for black students). The children tell their father that they want him to stay with them this time. The family wants Vernon to get a job at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as its preacher. Vernon will give the trial sermon for the congregation. Altona says that if they like his first sermon, they will ask him to give another. Then they might just ask him to be their preacher. She says it's a good church and she doesn't want him losing his temper. She says his job at the church in Charleston, West Virginia was a good one and he walked away from it. Vernon says: "A bunch of blowhards in spinkterinkdom." His wife says his girls need him. Enid and Jeanne barely know Vernon and Dee certainly needs her father as she is 14 years of age. Vernon is shocked that his eldest daughter is 14 already. Altona asks Vernon: "How many pulpits have you lost?"

Johns dresses up in a white suit to preach his first sermon. There is a big crowd there to hear him. The non-members of the church have to remain outside where they can hear the sermon over the loud speakers. Wilkes gives Johns the introduction. He mentions that Johns was a brilliant student at Oberlin College in Ohio. As Wilkes goes on and on, Johns asks Deacon Hill what does a white man calls a colored man with a doctorate? Nigger.

Johns comes to the pulpit. He tells the story of Lazarus and Dives. Dves was a rich man and Lazarus was a beggar. They both died. Dives was surprised to find himself in one of the upper circles of hell. And what was worse, Dives could see Lazarus up in heaven at the side of Abraham. Dives shouts to Abraham: "Abraham, send Lazarus with drink to cool my parched tongue." Abraham says: "No. You will live in death as you did in life, apart, because you have conditioned yourself to human inequality." Dives was not condemned to hell for his wealth, but because he insisted on inequality among humans. Johns goes on to say: "The nastiest and deadliest sin in the world today is the inane hatred between the races."

Johns asks the pianist Rose to play "Go Down Moses". She says she can't play Negro spirituals, because it's undignified according to the congregation. When the service is over, Baby Dee asks her father if they can take the bus and go someplace like the zoo. But dad sees the segregation on the Montgomery buses and he forbids anyone in the family from using the buses. The girls will just have to walk to school. Also banned are segregated drinking fountains and movie theaters.

Deacon Hill speaks out against Johns in the deacons' meeting. But no matter, Johns gets the job as the reverend for the church. Johns asks: "How much does it pay?"

Six months later. Vernon makes his youngest daughter Jeanne learn her fractions by forcing her to eat a slice of green apple whenever she makes a mistake. Baby Dee tells Jeanne that once she had to eat so many apples that she got sick   Dad says: "But you learned."

There is a knock on the door. Vernon goes to the door without his pants. He only realizes his mistake, when he sees the woman at the door looking at him strangely. He apologizes to her, but she doesn't care. Her boy is dead. The mother comes in to ask the reverend to say a special prayer in church for her boy Isaiah. The police say he tried to resist arrest, but she doesnít believe it. Vernon says she doesnít need a special prayer, but rather justice. She says she doesnít want to cause any more trouble.

Rev. Johns goes to Wilkes the mortician to see the body. There were three bullet holes in the boy. Johns says: "This wasnít resisting arrest. This was a lynching."  Wilkes gets upset and tells Johns that they donít know that for sure. He tells Johns not to rock the boat and jeopardize the progress the black community has made in Montgomery.

On Sunday Johns preaches the Biblical tale of Moses killing an Egyptian beating a slave. Why did Moses do it? Johns says: "Moses realized that slavery is a horror even greater than murder, that slavery is an abomination."  Vernon announces that "I am a boat rocker."  The murder of blacks in the community is so common because the perpetrators know that no one in the black community dares to call out for justice. He goes on: "And I say to you that in your silence you have become accessories to murder. Be ashamed to die until youíve won some victory for mankind."

Johns brings Deacon Hill with him to an all white diner. Hill says he wonít go in there. Johns asks him, doesnít he feel bad about this situation? Hill still wonít go in. So Vernon goes into the diner and sits down. He orders a lemonade and a ham sandwich. The man behind the counter says: "Boy, you better get your black ass out of here." Johns replies: "Not before I get my ham sandwich and my lemonade." The fellow gives him a lemonade and Johns downs it. The white fellow then breaks the glass Johns drank out of. The same scenario is repeated once more. Johns gets his ham sandwich, but a white man lays a pistol next to the sandwich. In church Johns tells the congregation: "Imagine, serving up a pistol with a ham sandwich. As I left that fine establishment, I gave the shortest blessing of my life over that ham sandwich. I said: ĎGod damn it!í"

The reverend then asks Rose to play "Go Down Moses" and she once again refuses. He asks: "Is that the way you all feel about it? Nobody out there wants to hear ĎGo Down Moses?. Whatís wrong with it? These spirituals were sung by our slave ancestors. They belong in the church. You act as if they will diminish your dignity. You mistake dignity for vanity. If I didnít know any better, Iíd say youíre ashamed you came from slaves. Youíre ashamed of what you were. Well, Iím ashamed of what youíve become."

At home Vernon rails against the congregation. Altona asks Vernon why is he trying to find some excuse to leave the family? She walks away from him and starts playing the piano. Vernon gets angry and grabs at her. He pulls the sleeve off her dress. She stops playing and he walks out of the house.

At night Dee canít sleep. She looks outside her window and sees her father sitting in his car. She goes down to talk with him. Dee says she had a bad dream where her father was laying in a pool of blood. She says he doesnít care what happens to his family after he is gone. She also says she is not like her father. She is afraid of death. Vernon says he will never leave her, but she says donít make any promises you canít keep.

Dee and Enid decide to disobey their father. They take the segregated bus to school.

Hill asks Johns if he ever gets afraid that someone will kill him? Johns answers him: "Hill, segregation will continue until we decide in our minds weíll no longer accept it, no matter what the consequences. If you havenít found a reason to die, you havenít found a reason to live." He then tells Hill about his economic philosophy that blacks must help other blacks establish black businesses and must shop at these black businesses, so blacks can have greater economic and then greater political power.

On Sunday he shows his congregation the carrots he grew on the soil of the parsonage. He talks to them about his business philosophy. The congregation is shocked when Vernon starts up his own little store selling things near the church. They donít like it one bit. Rev. Ralph Abernathy comes over to talk with Vernon Johns. (He later becomes a disciple of Johns and even later a co-leader of the Montgomery bus boycott with Martin Luther King, Jr.)

At home, Altona scolds Vernon for teasing the congregation with the selling of goods such as watermelon. Dee is getting teased at school because of it. Vernon says thatís good, because it builds character.

Johns has to speak with the deacons. They ask him to stop selling goods. Vernon rejects the idea. They ask him to provide a service for a dead, young near-do-well. Vernon doesnít like the idea but agrees to do the service.  At the actual service, Johns says before everyone that the dead man lived a trifling and worthless life. "He went around Montgomery daring for somebody to cut his throat. Last week somebody obliged him. He lived like a dog. He died like a doctor. Undertaker, claim the body. Choir sing."

Deacon Hill has a change of heart about civil rights when he canít pee at a white gas station. He has to go around back to pee. There small white boys pelt him with small rocks. He goes to Johns and tells him he will help him do anything he wants.

Johns canít get his car started to take Dee to her school debate competition. Altona tells Vernon that they will have to take the bus. Vernon and Dee get on the bus. He refuses to go around the back and get in, so the bus driver lets him walk to the back. Vernon sits down at the back of the white section and the bus driver tells him the bus ainít moving until Vernon moves back one row to the black section. The blacks start putting pressure on Vernon to move. He gives them a lecture about exerting their economic power with a boycott of the bus. His pleas fall on deaf ears. Vernon gets off the bus in disgust. Dee is very upset about missing her debate.

Altona tells her husband she let Dee go to the movies because she felt so bad about missing her debate. She asks Vernon just this once to leave poor Dee alone. Vernon wonít let her alone. He goes up into the balcony of the theater and pulls Dee out. He tells her he wants her to stand up against separate but equal because it ainít equal. She tells him that she has been riding the bus. She adds: "I donít have to do everything you tell me."

Vernon sits out in his car again. Dee sees him there, but doesnít come down to talk with him.

Two Montgomery police officers chase a pretty black woman and rape her. She shows up at the house of Vernon Johns for help. Vernon takes her to the hospital, but since there is no black nurse on duty, they tell Johns he must take the woman to the county hospital.  On his way Vernon is stopped for speeding by the police. They make him grovel like a black man should to a white man and then send him on his way.

Vernon takes the rape victim to the police office to report the rape by two Montgomery police officers. But the police make it impossible to do this. First the black woman walks out and then Vernon walks out. Johns advertises on his board outside the church that his next sermon will be: "When the rapist is white." The local judge calls Vernon down to his office. He asks him not to give the advertised sermon. He warns that Johns may find his church burned down. Vernon refuses to back down and the judge tells him he is free to go.

The deacons are scandalized and want to fire Johns for various reasons. But Deacon Hill refuses to agree to the firing and the deacons need a unanimous decision to fire Johns.

Deacon Hill sees two police officers beating a black man who is down on the ground. He intervenes and the police kill him. Wilkes blames Johns for the manís death.

At night Vernon is back in his car. Altona comes out to talk with him. She tells her husband he must not blame himself for what happened. She does bring him some comfort.

Johnsís next sermon will be: "Itís Safe to Murder Negroes" in Alabama. The judge now puts pressure on Deacon Wilkes. He tells him to do something about this reverend of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He says Johns has finally gotten the attention of the white community and they will be hard to control.

Dee gets a hate call saying they are going to lynch her father. A cross is burned in front of the church. Johns rushes down over to the church to find the cross still burning. He confronts the rednecks still there (who are probably Klan members), but they tell him he better go home and check on his wife and children. Johns rushes back to the house.  Vernon finds his wife and three girls cowering in an upstairs bedroom.

The police are out in force for the Sunday service. Johns gives a tough sermon berating blacks for cooperating too much with the racist power structure. He talks about the death of Deacon Hill at the hands of the police.  Then he tells the congregation why this goes on. He says itís because the blacks just stand by without saying anything against it. Itís like they stood by while Christ was being crucified. Is it fear? As he continues, two cops come in and take Vernon from his pulpit to take him down to speak to the judge again. As Vernon leaves with the police, Dee gets up and starts singing "Go Down Moses". Even Rose gets up and sings the spiritual.

The judge tells Johns that he doesnít have to worry about him anymore, because Deacon Wilkes is going to solve the problem for him. Later Wilkes tells Johns that he is fired. Johns puts on his cap and leaves.

The family is going back to Virginia. Altona will teach at Virginia State College. Vernon stays behind for awhile.

Wilkes tells the other deacons that they want a preacher who will be more conventional. He thinks he knows the man they need. Vernon comes to dinner with Ralph Abernathy and his wife. There Abernathy introduces Vernon to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ralph tells Vernon that he thought he might be able to give Martin some hints on how to handle those deacons at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Johns says: "Purchase a sledge hammer." All three men laugh at this.

As King gives a sermon, his theme proves a great disappointment to Deacon Wilkes. Meanwhile, Johns is hitch-hiking on the road.

Dee says: "Soon after my father left Montgomery, Martin Luther King led a boycott against the buses and the Dexter congregation played a major role in that historic protest. The civil rights movement was born. My father was never again offered a full-time pulpit. He continued to travel from church to church as a guest preacher until his death in 1965. On my desk is a plaque that I inscribed with something I must have heard my father say a thousand times: ĎIf you see a good fight, get in it.í "

 

Really important movie. This father of the civil rights movement was a forgotten man, that is until Taylor Branch did his historical study of the civil rights movement. He rescued Johns from being forgotten. Then the movie about the Vernon Johns story got many thousands of others learning about Johns.

The movie shows how much harder it is to start a protest movement, than to join one that has already started. Vernon Johns opposed segregation way before there was even a movement and that was very risky indeed.

James Earl Jones is absolutely great as Vernon Johns. Jones has also said that the role of Vernon Johns was his favorite role of his movie career. Nicole Leach was also very good as Baby Dee.

Oh, by the way, I know Jeanne Johns Adkins, the youngest child of Vernon Johns. Sheís a very good person and I help her fund activities at the Vernon Johns school in Petersburg, Virginia to help keep Vernonís memory going strong.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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