CHAPTER 27. VERNON JOHNS' FINAL YEARS
Taylor Branch (1988) may have saved Vernon Johns from obscurity, but he very much misled the reader and distorted the Johns' story. Branch writes that during those last years more people heard him than at any other time during his life. He makes it sound as if Johns became a conquering hero following the King ascendancy. This is simply not true. The black community continued to keep him away from the political mainstream. He was always limited to the religious circuit or to commencement exercises which meant he was condemned to semi-obscurity or speaking on self-improvement themes. Johns's highpoint in terms of public visibility was during his ascendancy to and occupation of the position of president of Virginia Seminary. The Journal and Guide carried rather long articles on Johns's speeches. After his loss of the presidency, he never was held in similar esteem and the articles on Johns were more announcements of brief facts than coverage of his speeches and ideas. (For a brief moment he was an influential member of the black community in Charleston, West Virginia, but this period was also very brief.)
We are not going to discuss the events of the civil rights movement per se, especially since Vernon Johns was kept out of all but the fringe of the movement. Only those events that impacted Johns will be mentioned.
Vernon Johns at the Maryland State Baptist Center and School of Religion
In 1957 Vernon Johns was director of the Maryland State Baptist Center and School of Religion. (King 1958: 38) This center, which offered adult education to black preachers, was a kind of missionary program sponsored jointly by the white Southern Baptists and the black National Baptist Convention. In 1942 the United Baptist Missionary Convention organized the Maryland Baptist Center and School of Religion (Fitts 1985:178-179).
The choir of Robert R. Moton high school was host to the Regional Choir Clinic (J&G March 16, 1957:14). Participating choirs were Carter G. Woodson of Dillwyn, Virginia, Russell Grove of Amelia, Virginia, Nelson county training school, Shipman, Virginia. The clinic was conducted by Mrs. Altona Johns of Virginia State College. On March 1 the choir gave a program at Carver-Price high school, Appomattox, Virginia.
The forty-third annual Minister Conference of Hampton Institute concentrated its program around the major problems ministers faced including preaching, pastoral counseling, and human relations (J&G July 6, 1957:20). The enrollment consisted of 316 ministers from surrounding states. Dr. Vernon Johns, director of the Maryland Baptist Center and School of Religion in Baltimore, spoke on human relations.
Rev. Abernathy invaded Virginia for an NAACP talk (J&G March 23, 1957:20). He opened the Petersburg 1957 Freedom Fund Drive at Zion Baptist Church. He also spoke at the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
Dr. and Mrs. Vernon Johns were presented in a recital of religious poetry and music, by the choirs of Tabernacle Baptist church, Rev. F. J. Boddie pastor (J&G, March 8, 1958:3). Among the selections rendered by Dr. Johns were poems from the Bible, "Thanatopsis," "L'Envoi" and "Requiem." Piano selections by Mrs. Johns included "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," "St. Francis on the Waves" and a group of spirituals.
The Baltimore Afro-American (June 15, 1957:5) carried the story that Altona's father, W.J. Trent, had resigned as Livingstone head. He resigned because of the amputation of his right leg last March from which he was still recovering.
"Dr. Johns Speaks at Simmons University, Louisville, Kentucky" (Baltimore Afro-American, June 22, 1957:17). It is not enough for a man to be dependent on jobs made by other people. The colored man must become interested in creating jobs and the source of economic wealth. Johns is direct of the Maryland Baptist Center in Baltimore. He was the commencement speaker last week.
He spoke to twelve graduates. He said colored people are academically literate, but socially illiterate. "We are steak conscious, but not steer conscious; we are bread conscious, but not grain conscious." I have a suspicion that the power and force of the colored citizen is not keeping pace with his literary and academic achievements. He concluded that the group is advancing greatly in civics courses, but are only mediocre in citizenship.
In the summer of 1958 Dr. Johns was one of the instructors at the annual Virginia State College Summer Institute for Ministers held in July (J&G June 21, 1958:3). The purpose of the institute was to assist pastors and Christian workers to develop more effective ministries, and enlarge the range of their services. Ministers and religious workers, from various sections of Virginia and North Carolina, participated in classes, social and cultural programs, and general sessions during the two weeks the institute was held.
The Summer School for Ministers was sponsored by the Conference of Virginia Negro College on Rural Life. The purpose of the school was to improve community life through the development of the church and its leadership by stimulating larger cooperation between the churches, the schools and other community organizations. A variety of courses in English, rural life problems and social agencies, worship in rural churches, and preparation and delivery of sermons were offered by the staff, including Rev. S. L. Gandy, director of religious activities. Johns taught at the summer school for two or three summers. Rev. William Powell, Jr. remembers taking a course from Johns on philosophy.
Garnel Stamps said that a woman he interviewed mentioned that, as a teacher, Vernon Johns would take his students and assign them long passages from the classics of American literature and then would give them a period of time to learn them. She said Johns would have the students stand up there and recite some passages from a selected author and if the student didn't know it, he would just make the student stay up in front of the class. The woman said that some of the students hated Johns. But then when they heard the passages somewhere else, from a minister for instance, they would say "I remember that. Dr. Johns taught us that."
The Norfolk Journal and Guide (April 4, 1959:19) carried news that Johns, director of the Maryland Baptist Center, was the speaker for Religious Emphasis Week, March 15-20, at Elizabeth City State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The theme of the week was "Religion and Human Relations" and Johns delivered a challenging series of messages, each morning or evening speaking on some phase of the week's theme. He stressed "new points of view" with respect to human relations under the guidance of the Christian religion. He spoke of the vital place that religion has in human relations, showing how human relations cannot be maintained on a high and beneficial level without religion as a foundation. The paper said that he made himself available for personal conferences with students and others that were "helpful".
On October 1, 1959 the Union, New Jersey Leader (Oberlin archive files) reported that Vernon Johns would be the speaker in Union at the worship service at First Baptist Church, Vauxhall. It said that Dr. Johns was currently on a nationwide preaching tour.
Probably in later summer 1960 there occurred a debacle for Vernon Johns at a convention of white and black preachers. About 150 preachers had met for lunch at the Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore. It seems that Vernon was especially bothered by a white preacher's sermon on Christian salvation about "being washed in the blood of the Lamb." Following the end of the preacher's talk, Johns immediately stood up, not waiting for any pleasantries. Branch (1988:340) reported that Johns said that "The thing that disappoints me about the Southern white church is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross." Of course, Johns was exactly right. Jesus as the spokesman for the poor was largely ignored by white Christians, who preferred to talk about the forgiveness of private sins through atonement and Jesus's ultimate sacrifice. As Johns correctly said, "The church has not formally denounced the Sermon on the Mount. It has merely let it slide. I want to deal with Jesus before the cross. I don't give a damn what happened to him after the cross." But although Johns was right, he was still wrong, politically and socially speaking. Both sides were embarrassed by Johns's remarks and the tentative brotherhood of black and white Baptist preachers in Baltimore was stifled as a collective movement. Soon afterwards Johns was asked to resign his position at the Maryland Center. He drifted off again to the sermon and lecture circuit. The Center no longer exists.
Branch sounded disappointed in Johns, expecting the prophet to be silent. But a prophet cannot be silent, cannot be a politician. It is simply not in the cards.
Out of Step with the Civil Rights Movement
In 1961 Vernon Johns was editor of the Second Century of Freedom magazine. On an alumni form dated November 9, 1965, Altona Trent Johns said that she still had "some copies of the two editions gotten out." The phrase "second century of freedom" referred to the coming of the centennial of the emancipation of the slaves in 1963. The magazine contained a pledge to be signed by the interested reader: "I do earnestly promise to observe the one month of working days, most closely related to my freedom, the date of the fall of Richmond, April second to the date of the ending of the civil war at Durham, North Carolina, April twenty sixth, by some study and reflection on the price of freedom and the heroes who fostered it, and by promoting or attending at least one celebration during that period."
The prophet Johns most likely felt somewhat left behind and left out by the civil rights movement. Jeanne Johns Adkins told Henry Powell that her father was very upset when he was not asked to participate in the ceremonies connected with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The movement never paid much attention to his overwhelming concern with the need to establish strong black businesses and he must have resented the civil rights leaders as he resented the middle class blacks during the era of Jim Crow. In the magazine, reflecting Johns's constant desire to establish strong black economic institutions, he actually demeans the methods used in the civil rights movement by referring to them as "but signs of the times." He says "these times require even more constructive action and organization. The vast and growing billions of purchasing power in the hands of the black American must be turned into creative channels."
Examining the magazine it is apparent that it is a real hodge-podge of Vernon Johns's interests and philosophy, but with no clearly defined purpose or goal. It seems to have a little of everything for which Johns was known.
For instance, it contains articles about the civil war, Johns's avocation; black business, which Johns always promoted; spiritual self-help, his vocation; black role models; and political goals "with the hope of stepped up progress".
The demise of the magazine was not surprising. In many ways blacks try to forget that their ancestors were slaves. And they do not want whites to think of them as coming from former slaves. Not many are really interested in the Civil War. In fact, most of them resent the emphasis that Southern whites place on the Civil War. The Confederate flag still rankles many. The war may have been the private passion of Vernon Johns, but it was a very doubtful basis on which to establish a healthy magazine. But, as we have seen, Rev. Johns was never much of a practical business man.
The Second Century of Freedom makes it plainly clear just how much Vernon Johns was out of touch with the civil rights movement. Nowhere did he mention Martin Luther King, Jr., or the philosophy of love, or integration. Instead he continued to emphasize economics as the true method to black salvation. Instead of talking about politics, he talked about making sure that black money went into black banks.
In fact, Johns was so out of touch that there was no way that he could have been included in the civil rights movement. What would a non-violent movement do with Johns' statement that John Brown was the Negro's greatest friend?
Johns was still acting as the prophet -- trying to shock people. His Second Century of Freedom magazine certainly would have shocked people, but Johns was not allowed (necessarily so) to be a part of the civil rights movement.
Vernon Johns Back in Petersburg
Johns gave the dedication sermon for the new educational unit of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, of which Rev. Fred L. Steen, class of 1955, was the minister. The two pastors had their picture taken by the dedication plaque. (Reported in the News Tribune, 7/12/62, Oberlin files)
In an article dated September 29, 1963 the Winston-Salem North Carolina Journal and Sentinel reported that Dr. Johns would speak at the annual convocation at 4 p.m. at Fries Auditorium of Winston-Salem State College. He would preach on "Divergent Levels of Human Excitement."
Rev. Virgil Wood graduated from Virginia Union University. He was active in the protest movement in Lynchburg, Virginia and came under considerable criticism from his congregation which did not care for his involvement in political affairs. Johns came to the church and helped save the situation for Rev. Wood. Lee Thaxton taped the sermon and then lent it to Rev. Wood. (So far this tape has not been recovered.)
Garnell Stamps said that he heard Vernon Johns when he gave the special address at Virgil Woods's church. He said that Johns talked about John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev and how peace could come on earth if the leaders would get out of the way and let their wives get together.
Johns was ever the loner. When Henry Powell (1995:7-8) asked him about the Montgomery Improvement Association, which Johns had helped to establish, he spoke of his great distance from the group. He said he had no proof but that there were reports of the misuse of funds received from civil rights supporters throughout the nation and from abroad. Later reports of fraud were documented. He also did not think much of the black Petersburg Improvement Association. They invited him to fill in because there was no speaker. They paid him $100. He gave the money back saying "I have seen your workers buttonholing people on the streets, I have seen them canvassing door to door attempting to raise money to keep this organization afloat. How can you justify squandering the hard earned nickels and dimes of poor people in such a manner?"
The last time Henry Powell saw him was in Germantown, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. He spotted an unmistakable car. It was a white Mercury automobile covered with brightly colored book titles advertising the books Johns carried for sale. Powell tried to catch up with the car, but Johns must have taken a side street. (Powell 1995:33)
Taylor Branch (1988:902) tells a disturbing story about how Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Chauncey Eskridge to undertake a secret mission to Petersburg, Virginia. According to Branch, "King knew Johns was in another vagabond phase and had not lived regularly with Altona Johns in some years." Eskridge finally found him, but from Johns's appearance Eskridge at first could not believe it. He found Johns living on a vacant lot of an abandoned gasoline station. It was cordoned off by rope to keep cars from parking there, or from miring in the red mud. He was tending a squatter's vegetable stand. He was a silver-stubbled old relic in brogans without socks or shoelaces. Eskridge at first thought Johns was a local wino. Eskridge found that Johns had nothing. Johns had no need to record material because of his fantastic memory. He had no written notes, ideas, sermons, or speeches.
Vernon had a round trailer that was attachable to a car. One could stay in there if he had to. The area was known as "The Avenue," a place you did not want to be unless you had to. According to Lucius Edwards, archivist of Virginia State University, Johns was at times living inside the trailer, but it is also possible that he was living in one of the housing units in a row of houses behind "The Chatterbox," owned by Julius Lee, who also owned the housing units and promoted tours of singers and singing groups.
Jeanne Johns Adkins believes that Chauncey Eskridge left the wrong impression of her father. ". . . he opened this all night convenience store on Halifax Street in the city. And on two nights a week he would preach -- winos, everybody would come out to hear him preach and he would preach in such a way that they loved to listen.. . . somebody was breaking into his store, so he decided to catch him. So one night they broke in. He called the cops and said there are two boys lying here, cold. He had knocked them both out at the age of seventy." (Jeanne Johns Adkins interview).
She said to the authors that "My father had a grocery store. He had been selling something all his life. . . . He often slept in the store. In black Petersburg they had a store. People kept breaking into it. So he put a cot in there and slept there. Two people broke in. When the police arrived they found the two men unconscious. Vernon Johns had knocked them both unconscious. And this was at 70 years of age. Yes, my father was always gone. So what?" In other words, this was Vernon Johns as usual.
Jeanne added that her father had not separated from her mother. "Never," she said. She also said that her mother "had a great respect for his brilliance. She would not have traded one second of her life. She came from a middle class life, but she wanted the mind."
"I Have A Dream"
Jeanne Johns Adkins told Henry Powell that her father was very disappointed that he was not invited to the meeting at the Washington Mall where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Garnell Stamps said that "I believe that Martin Luther King's most famous public utterance "I Have a Dream" is nothing more than an adaptation of Johns's "Along Came the Dreamer." Henry Powell added that Taylor Branch's book confirmed the fact that Martin Luther King borrowed from Vernon Johns. For instance, King preached a version of the Dives and Lazarus story. "It wasn't plagiarism in the strict meaning of the term. Vernon Johns freely gave and permitted anyone to use his material. He would give to you and me or anyone else."
Stamps added: "I heard Thornhill, who is now the mayor, say that Martin Luther King stole "I Have a Dream" from Vernon Johns." Stamps said that the theme "Along came the Dreamer" is from the book of Genesis about Joseph and his brothers. "Here cometh the dreamer; come let us slay him." Stamps said "These brothers did this and that and then along came Joseph, the dreamer."
He said that people were wondering "Where in the hell did he (King) get that great speech? Well the people who knew, including his daddy, Martin Luther King Sr., told us in 1975 at Seminary -- there was O. C. Cardwell, Lafayette Robinson, and Jim Brooks, who was the former minister at Court Street Baptist Church. Daddy King said that he (Vernon Johns) was the greatest preacher America ever produced. Daddy King said that in February 1975. . . . Daddy King never said ‘Oh, my son did that.' Everybody, all black preachers preached on that topic." Of some of the topics that King discussed, Stamps added: "Dr King just didn't talk about those kinds of things. The economics of the people. But I don't think there is any evidence in print."
Many authors today make a big deal about how Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X came to approach each other in their philosophies near the end of their respective lives. The truth is that both men had just run out of good ideas. King moved toward thinking more in economic terms (which was really right up Vernon Johns' ally), but this would prove to be just as unfruitful as all Vernon Johns' economic efforts. And Malcolm X just became another run-of-the-mill Marxist thinker. There was certainly nothing there. This is not a substantial criticism of the two men because the activists served their purpose when they were needed. But once the movements pass, the activists are just as incapable of clear thinking about the future as the ordinary person. A new prophet has to arise with new thoughts about how to proceed. Speculations about how the two men moved toward each other is to demean their real contributions. (Although personally, we do not think much of Malcolm X.)
Vernon Johns' Last Days
Where was Vernon Johns? Vernon Johns was often conducting Week of Prayer engagements at colleges throughout the East. (J&G July 3, 1965:3) Vernon Johns had finally agreed to come aboard the faculty of the School of Religion at Howard University in the fall semester of the 1965-66 academic year. Samuel Lucius Gandy was dean and he knew that Vernon could not bring himself to abide by a routine teaching load. The agreement was for Johns to teach at least one course and to write. He would be at liberty to journey hither and yon in spreading his message.
"The Romance of Death" was his last major sermon. In the sermon he mentioned that if he was reinvited back next year by the Dean of Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, it would make forty years of his serving as a visiting preacher to the Howard University Chapel.
Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Howard University
The Rev. William Powell, Jr. said that he felt Gandy, in publishing the sermon in the of the posthumous book of Vernon John's sermons On Human Possibilities, had left out the fire in the sermon. Whatever he did, it was not the same sermon that he heard in the kitchen of Mrs. Croner's house, his wife's grandmother. Gandy lost the brilliance of the message. The theme is that why should we be so silly as to believe that, since God had prepared us so much for life, that he would be remiss about preparing us for death?
Henry Powell sent the senior author a tape of this sermon. Johns's voice was a little high, but at the same time a bit raspy. He sounded more like an gruff, earthy professor with a southern accent, than a Martin Luther King, Jr. But he did sound better when he raised his voice and was impassioned. And, of course, this was shortly before his death.
In the sermon one definitely gets a taste of Johns's earthiness. Johns mentions ogling his secretary a bit too much, making her feel a bit uncomfortable. But he also got quite a few laughs, especially with his earthy comments. In the printed version of the speech Gandy cleaned up the sermon considerably. Gandy changed the sermon the Romance of Death to cut out the earthier parts. For instance, he used the term "flesh" instead of the term "meat" in the phrase that Jesus "said that there'll not be any problems with seven husbands and one wife if there isn't any meat involved." If you can stand the crudeness of it, Ambrose Bierce wrote a horrible line about his friend which has a message in it. He said, ‘A row of rich, rank lush vegetation marked the path he made in running out of the grave as slush." Gandy changed the meaning of the last phrase to "grave of slush," which modifies the crudeness of the image.
Checking the sermon text against Johns's spoken word, we also noticed that his quotes were not verbatim and that he made quite a few mistakes in quoting the words of various authors. But Henry Powell mentioned that Johns in his later years was losing quite a bit of his memory and that he was considerably bothered by this.
Shortly after delivering "The Romance of Death," at Howard University, Johns himself died of a heart attack in Washington, D. C., June 11, 1965 (Branch 1988:901-902). Johns preached that sermon just ten days before his passing. His wife wrote (Boddie 1972:75)"Always, I suppose, I will be immobilized by the shock, especially since Vernon had his heart attack two days before he was to leave the hospital where he had what was termed 'a successful operation.'"
A funeral service was held at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Petersburg. Officiating at the ceremony were Dr. Samuel F. Gandy, dean of the Howard University School of Religion; Dr. F. J. Bodie, pastor, Tabernacle; the Rev. Gilmore Williams; and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. (J&G July 3, 1965:3)
Alton Morton said that Johns had picked out his own grave site many years earlier. At that time, Alton was working on Vernon's farm. Rev. Johns was picking up rocks on his property. Alton said: "‘I said, ‘Doc get up there in that shade and have some rest. You'll have a stroke right here.' I was on the tractor. I made another round and he said ‘Son. Come up here.' And I looked at him. ‘Let that tractor cool off.' (Laughter.) I sat there and we're talking and he said ‘You know I just marked my grave.' I said ‘Doc, what in the world are you talking about?' ‘I want to be buried right between these two cedar trees.' And I seen the trees were six feet apart. I said ‘Doc, you're mighty young to pick your grave.' ‘I won't be here much longer.' I said ‘Well, one thing Doc. You admire your cedar trees. I do too. But if you put from one tree to the other you're going to kill those roots and you won't have no trees. Why not go between the trees.' Doc said ‘Umph. You got more sense than I thought you had.' (Laughter.) And he said go ahead and get me that rock. He placed rocks at the head and the foot." Alton added that he (Alton) could tell people "I know exactly where he wants to be buried." (Johns was buried beneath a red cedar tree.)
Henry Powell said that he did not know if it was myth or truth but the story went that Johns wanted to be buried on a hill overlooking the property of his feuding partner, Leslie Davenport who lived on the property adjoining Vernon's place, so that he could keep an eye on the man. Asked by Garnell Stamps if Henry had ever met Mr. Davenport to learn if Davenport was very disturbed about the feuding, Henry replied in the affirmative and added "He told me Rev. Johns was his burden. I guess all of us Christians have a burden and Rev. Johns is mine."
Altona continued at Virginia State College. She and Undine Moore teamed up to head the study of "Black Music, Art, and Literature." (1970 Trojan yearbook: 44) In 1972 the Trojan (pp. 28-29), the Virginia State College yearbook, had a dedication to Altona Johns and Undine Moore. "Dedication to Our Ladies: Two Queens that have spread their beauty upon our campus through their musical talents and historical knowledge, the third world dedicates its pages to you, Sisters Altona Johns and Undine Moore. Black women that spread their talents over the world and nation, we love U."
Mrs. Undine S. Moore was a professor of music who taught music theory - counterpoint and was the coordinator of basic education courses in music and art (J&G August 16, 1958:18). She received a B. A. degree and diploma in piano and organ from Fisk University, where she was awarded a Juilliard scholarship. The degree of Master of Arts was earned at Columbia University. She was the wife of Dr. James A. Moore, director of health and physical education at Virginia State college.
Altona Trent Johns passed away in Louisiana in 1977 of breast cancer following a mastectomy. She was a visiting professor at Dillard University in New Orleans.
They are currently trying to erect a civil rights museum at the old R. R. Moton school in Farmville. Vera Allen and her daughter, who went to school with Barbara Johns, are active in this movement. Vernon Johns will be honored there along with his niece Barbara Johns, as well as others. The Allens own a funeral home and they managed the funeral arrangements for Barbara Johns who died in 1991.
Taylor Branch's book (1988) brought Johns out from the shadows. This was reinforced by the 1989 television program Saturday Night with Connie Chung with its docudrama on Johns' life, God's Bad Boy: Montgomery, Alabama. Further attention came to the life of Vernon Johns in January 1994 with a made-for-TV-movie entitled "The Vernon Johns Story". The executive producer was the basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In 1994 they erected an historical marker where Vernon Johns had his store on county route 665, 6.5 miles from the intersection of 665 and US Route 15. He is buried with his wife under a red cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana) just slightly northwest off north (322 degrees) from the historical marker near the tree line. Barbara Johns is buried in the cemetery of Triumph Baptist Church, Darlington Heights.
In 1995 they unveiled the historical marker to Dr. Johns. Over 100 people gathered. Included among the attendees were John Johns and his wife, Jean Johns Adkins, Henry Powell, the editor of the Piedmont Journal, and Beth Roebuck and her sister. Julie Vosmik, survey and register program manager for the department of historic resources, told the crowd that, "We congratulate you for your interest in commemorating an important part of our history. . . . The department has endeavored for many years to recognize historic events and people and places and regrettably some of those people and places have been left out of our story and we're trying to correct that. And certainly prominent African-Americans have not been identified and recognized as they should be. We are very excited to have this marker added to the collection."
Rev. Spraggs, president of the Prince Edward Ministerial Alliance which helped spearhead fund raising efforts to purchase the marker and who encountered Vernon Johns while Spraggs was a student at Hampden-Sydney, described Johns as an intellectual tower. "He was the father of civil rights," Joseph Berryman, vice-president of Lynchburg Seminary and College. His daughter-in-law Elizabeth Johns said his legacy to his own family was "If you see a good fight, get in it." The Rev. Dr. Elisha Hall, president-elect of Virginia Seminary and College, gave the keynote address during afternoon ceremonies at Triumph Baptist Church in Darlington Heights which followed the unveiling.
"We would get a basket of apples and a basket of peaches. And we would leave Prince Edward County and head for Montgomery, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. And we would eat peaches and apples all the way," said a nephew of Vernon Johns. "My second job was to keep him awake while we were on the road. My uncle Vernon would fall asleep in that Mercury and run off the road. God was looking out for him because I'd shake him and holler, "Uncle Vernon" and he'd wake up and say "Argh, we're rolling right now. Where are we?" "Right now we're in the ditch on the side of the road," Rod Johns remembers telling his uncle.
As a boy growing up in Prince Edward in the 1950's, Norman Neverson, president of EMI Communications in Washington D.C., played baseball with nephew Rod Johns. Driving away from Washington toward Darlington Heights, Neverson found his mind searching the Old Testament and the Prophet Isaiah for an answer to the question of Vernon Johns' identity. He found the answer in chapter 19, verse 20. "It shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. The people shall cry because of their oppressors. And he shall send them a savior. And a great one he shall be."
Neverson added: "Finally, I want to say this: Of all the things I can recall of Dr. Johns, it must have been his courage. There's a courage called defiance. There's one called perseverance. You've heard courage shout and you've heard it whisper. . . Dr. Johns' courage spoke loudest in the small acts performed far, far from the applauding crowd. In the face of adversity, self-doubt, ridicule, contempt and scorn, his courage became that mighty spirit that refused to give in, refused to give up. In the year of our Lord, 1954, Brown vs. Board, it never gave out."
Oberlin recently changed the name of its minority scholarship to the Vernon Johns scholarship. They have an annual Vernon Johns dinner at which the scholarships are awarded.
Contrasting Johns and King
Most commentators on Johns do not understand the man. For instance, Yeakey (1979:147) unfairly criticizes Johns in favor of King. He does this by relating the terrible things that King did not do, and by inference, what Johns did do. Among the charges against Johns were that he was abusive in his approach to the congregation, talked down to them, did not seek their advice, did not enlist their support, did not ask for their cooperation, but told them what to do, and reprimanded the congregation if they did not follow him. He pitted one faction of the church against another and only dealt with those he personally liked or needed.
Yes, King did have a winning way. But, according to Taylor Branch (1988), he was more of a conventional preacher when he arrived in Montgomery with rather conventional plans. One could never call Johns conventional. The greatness of King was that he was able to rise to the occasion when the stars and planets aligned so that change could happen in the United States. The greatness of Johns was that he prepared the way for the occasion.
Comparing Johns and King is like comparing apples and oranges. For pedagogical purposes, one can compare the relationship between Johns and King to the relationship between Jesus and Paul. The work of Jesus so alienated the factions in his own land that he was killed at a very early age. So in this practical sense how effective was Jesus in his handling of people? And just how many political skills does a prophet have in maneuvering various political factions? The point is you cannot see prophets like Jesus and Johns as practical politicians. It's just not fair or accurate.
Paul had much greater success than Jesus. It was largely through his work that the message of Christianity was created and survived. But what would Paul be without the work of Jesus? There is no doubt that King was a great man. But one does not have to denigrate King to praise Johns. They had different tasks to do and had different talents to do these.
There is a great division between the Johns family and the King family. There is some feeling among the Johns family that the King family has tried to deny credit to Vernon Johns as the rightful father of the civil rights movement. It would only be natural that among the King family there would be some defensiveness about Martin Luther King Jr.'s reputation. But on the other hand, the fact that Johns was out of step with the civil rights movement is the major explanation for Johns being ignored by the movement itself.
Actually the way out of this problem is to increase the praise of both Johns and King. Johns was a great man who fought tirelessly against the apartheid system and he deserves credit for being the father of the civil rights movement. But King also deserves increased credit - credit that has been denied to him by the New Left neo-separatists inspired by Malcolm X now dominant in intellectual circles. King's message and approach were exactly the ones needed to overthrow the apartheid system. Certainly a Malcolm X separatist approach would never have worked. Both King and Johns are men who are under credited in today's society and perhaps with the goal of increasing awareness for both men the forces favoring integration may one day be able finally to unite.
Neither Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. nor King were prophets. They were more the tacticians applying the strategy of the prophet Vernon Johns. This does not demean the contributions of these men. They were great men of great accomplishments. But one has to investigate the strategist as well as the tactician. There is no sense in criticizing King to enhance Johns's reputation. A social movement needs many different types of people. Johns was more of the strategist making the entire movement possible, while King was more of a tactician, who once the movement was underway came up with the best tactics to keep the movement going. One is not better than the other; rather they are complimentary.
In Praise of Vernon Johns: Prophet and Father of the Civil Rights Movement
King's task in Montgomery was made much easier because of the work of Johns. James Pierce (quoted in Yeakey 1979:147) said that "Johns came here and pulverized this particular soil. He not only pulverized it, but he planted it, and out from that came men of courage, women of courage. Martin Luther King only had to find a rallying place for other people . . ."
Even Dexter Avenue Baptist Church recognized Johns's role after he was gone from the church. In the series of articles written for the centennial of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church by Thelma Austin Rice (1977:7) the article entitled "A Brief Sketch of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Her Pastors" mentioned that "In his perennial militancy in speech, action and from his pen for racial equality for all men, Rev. Johns rocked the Montgomery community with far reaching consequences elsewhere in this great land of ours." She added that "Through his teachings and his precepts, he aroused not only the Dexter family but hundreds of citizens of Montgomery to the changes that had taken place and to those which were still taking place in the relationships of mankind and emphasized the concept of human fellowship that would know no narrow racial, religious, or national boundaries. He kindled a strong flame of thoughts of the importance that every individual should have in the affairs of the world." Furthermore she said that "A blaze of self-esteem was kindled in the community by Dr. Johns but awaited the necessary fuel to start the conflagration."
On the television program Saturday Night with Connie Chung, Rev. Vernon Dobson commented that "Had it not been for Vernon Johns there would not have been a civil rights movement. You have to built that stage on which to stand to project the movement." On the same program Gardner Taylor commented that "I think he was the principal forerunner of the whole civil rights movement. Because there was nobody in black life whose whole career was focused in such a white heat fashion upon this one matter of the plight of blacks."
Court Street Baptist Church member Lee Thaxton said: "King was King. I was a board member for SCLC. And I was around King several times. King could speak and deliver, but he didn't have the logic that Vernon Johns put behind it. King could speak alright but the thought that Johns put behind it was a whole lot different. And all the things that King would talk about was how certain laws were enacted. Vernon used to quote them off like nobody's business. He was a speaker." Henry Powell asked Mr. Thaxton "I was telling Dr. Cooney that Ralph Abernathy had been to your home here. What did he think of Vernon Johns?" Thaxton replied: "Ralph Abernathy and King were here at this home. Abernathy told me and my wife, we were sitting here, that Johns was the head of the civil rights movement. That he actually started it. Johns did you know. . . . He was the backbone behind it."
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