PART VII. YEARS AFTER ALABAMA
CHAPTER 26. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND VERNON JOHNS
Vernon Johns as he appeared in the newspaper April 4, 1959
Events after Montgomery
The Rev. Vernon Johns, of Montgomery, Alabama, and Miss Estell Thomas, dean of Women of Hampton Institute, were two of the speakers at the Homecoming and Farmers Day grandstand programs of the popular Suffolk Fair of October 21- 24, 1952. (J&G, October 18, 1952:3) The paper said that Johns is "well known in this state. He is a forceful speaker".
After Vernon was forced out at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1952, Altona Johns went to Virginia State University to be on the faculty of the Music Education Department. She had an A.B. from Atlanta University and an M.A. from Teacher's College, Columbia University, New York in musical education.
Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia is located in Chesterfield County in the town of Ettrick near Petersburg. Today it has around 1,300 men and 1,800 women students for an enrollment of around 3,000 students, 93% of whom are black. It has six undergraduate schools and one graduate school. The campus consists of 625 acres with fifty-two buildings in a suburban area twenty-five miles south of Richmond.
In the 1940s, the WPA guide (WPA 1940:282) noted that the Virginia State College for Negroes, located at the north end of Campbell's Bridge, covers 300 elevated acres above the Appomattox River. On the campus of thirty-seven acres are thirty-one brick buildings; the rest of the land is an experimental farm. Established in 1882 as the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, it was created largely through the activities of public-spirited Negroes, particularly A. W. Harris, of Petersburg, who introduced the bill to establish the institution. Inadequate state support long retarded its progress. In 1902 the name was changed to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute, and in 1920 the institute was made the Negro land-grant college of Virginia. The college steadily increased its enrollment and the standard of its twenty-three courses of instruction, which included liberal arts, agriculture, manual crafts, and a department of education. In 1930 the name of the institution was changed by the legislature to Virginia State College for Negroes. Enrollment in 1937-38 was 1,005, of which 576 were women.
John Manuel Gandy (1870-1947) was the third president of Virginia State College (Logan and Winston 1982:249-251). He was born in Mississippi to freed slaves and tenant farmers. He attended Jackson College 1886-1888 and went to Oberlin Academy in 1892. In 1898 he received a B.A. from Fisk in Nashville, followed by an M.A. In that same year he became a professor of Greek and Latin at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute at Petersburg. He became the president in 1914, replacing James Hugo Johnston. In 1917 he married Carrie Senora Brown. Gandy Hall is named for him. He was friends with Booker T. Washington, R. R. Moton, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, E. R. Embree of the Rosenwald Fund, Jackson Davis of the General Education Board, and Maggie L. Walker.
After Johns rejoined his wife in Petersburg, he continued to go back and forth to his farm in Darlington Heights. One day Vernon came to Henry Powell (1995:18-19) and asked him to drive with him down to Montgomery to pick up Altona's grand piano that had been left behind. At that time Powell was afraid to drive with Vernon through the deep south. Given Vernon's temperament, wrote Henry, any situation could develop into a life threatening predicament. Johns carried a loaded double-barreled shotgun with him whenever he drove. At this time he drove a white Mercury. Johns was not afraid of anything. He once said "We must not fear dying. There's a lot of things worse than dying, and one of them is being alive when you should be dead!" Luckily perhaps for Henry, he did not have to make that trip.
King (1958:38-39) wrote that in 1953 a few enterprising individuals came together under Johns's influence, and organized Farm and City Enterprises "-- a cooperative supermarket which has today developed into a thriving business. This was a tour de force in a community that had generally been abysmally slow to move."
Also in 1953 Vernon Johns performed the marriage ceremony of his niece, Barbara Johns, to William H. R. Powell, Jr. He commented that the uniting of the Johns and Powell families would undoubtedly spell trouble for others. The couple had met in 1950. Powell took his new bride away from Darlington Heights to Philadelphia. She was to have six children in all and earn her M.S. in library science from Drexel, just north of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Barbara was a school librarian for some twenty-two years and never became reinvolved in politics. Her husband said she never thought what she did was that big of a deal, but that authors and reporters never let her forget as they periodically would contact her for her comments.
Back in Virginia, Johns started another cooperative economic venture. In Prince Edward County Rev. Johns in 1954 began to raise livestock. A 100 acre piece of land was deeded (Prince Edward County Courthouse) dated to October 1, 1954 to Virginia Farm and City Enterprises, Inc.
Vernon Johns came down to Norfolk, Virginia to speak at Dr.. Sutherland's church there. Dr.. Sutherland let Vernon be the orator of the day. He let Johns speak on his Farm and City Enterprises. He said Johns had worked on an economic cooperative in Alabama but couldn't get it started as he wanted it. He said quite a few of the pastors in Virginia let him present his economic proposition. He said Johns had a plan to sell farm goods directly to the consumer, cutting out the middleman.
At this time he met and influenced a man that proved to be important to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Wyatt Tee Walker. Walker was born in 1929 in Brockton, Massachusetts. He received a B.S. (magna cum laude) from Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1950 and a MDiv (summa cum laude) 1953. For eight years, 1953 to 1960, he was pastor of Historic Gilfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. Walker worked with Johns on the cooperative venture in Farmville. Walker was president of the NAACP of Virginia for five years. He was also state director of CORE, a national board member of the SCLC, and a trustee of Virginia Seminary. Later he would become chief of staff for Martin Luther King, Jr. He is now minister at Canaan Baptist Church, New York City.
Vernon Johns and the Virginia Farm and City Enterprises were sued by Leslie Davenport (1888-1970) for several trespasses of animals on his property. In September 1955 he recorded the possibility that he might be a creditor of Johns' assets if he won the pending case (Prince Edward County Courthouse).
A deed dated September 28, 1959 (Prince Edward County Courthouse) appointed James A. Overton liquidating receiver for the Virginia Farm and City Enterprise, Inc., a Virginia corporation. It dissolved the corporation by operation of law and Overton became empowered by the said order to sell, convey, and dispose of all or any parts of the assets of the dissolved corporation. A parcel of land of 100 acres was sold for $8,000 dollars to F. J. Boddie, the highest bid. The land had been given over to the Virginia Farm and City Enterprises as of October 1, 1954.
Sometime between 1950 and 1954 Dr. M. C. Sutherland (known as "Mac") (interview November 3, 1997), president of Virginia Seminary from 1966 to 1980, traveled with Vernon Johns from Lynchburg, Virginia to Oberlin College where Johns was to give the annual alumni address. On Sunday Johns preached at the Rivermont in Lynchburg and Monday morning they took off for Ohio before having any breakfast. They decided to eat breakfast at Natural Bridge. They arrived at Natural Bridge around 8 or 9 a.m. Entering the restaurant the host had the two ministers follow him through the dining room to another dining area where the restaurant workers ate. They sat down in this secondary dining room. Dr. Sutherland didn't think anything about it. But Vernon Johns seemed perturbed. The waiter took their food order and then Johns took the pencil from the waiter and wrote a note on the back of the order form. The note asked the management if the cost of the meal was going to be adjusted for the convenience that they failed to get in service. The waiter asked Johns: "What should I do with this?" Johns replied "Give it to the manager!" They brought the food. Dr. Johns said "Brother Sutherland, I cannot eat under these conditions. It disrupts me too much." He just couldn't eat he said. After a while the waiter came back with some written reply on the same piece of paper and left. Dr. Johns read it. He said to Dr.. Sutherland "I just can't do it." And he went out to the car. What happened at breakfast, however, did not disrupt his thinking. He did not mention the incident again, but rather said to Dr.. Sutherland (I want to run through my talk with you." He said the entire rest of the journey they talked abut homiletics. Mac Sutherland added: "Vernon Johns was a man who could go and let go. If you can let go, you will help yourself. If you can't let go, you will hurt yourself."
Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) kept in contact with the Johns family for awhile. She would go to a flower show in Petersburg and would often see them when they lived off campus. It was a little house separate but right across from the campus. One time she gave Altona three or four pictures of the Johns children because Altona said that all her pictures had burned in the fire.
In the mid-1950s, probably around 1955, Henry W. Powell (1995:9-10) drove Vernon Johns to Virginia Seminary to give the commencement address. Being dressed in farm garb Henry asked him about his attire. Vernon had his suit in a brown paper bag and said that "When we get to town, I'm going to bathe and dress at a friend's house." And sure enough he showered and shaved and dressed at Anne Spencer's house. On the way back from the commencement, Vernon said "You know I just thought of something." "What's that?" asked Henry. "I'll bet you that in the history of American education, this was the first graduating class that was ever addressed by a speaker who didn't have any underwear on." He had forgotten to pack underwear in his bag.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
In December 1953 Deacon Nesbitt of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church told W.C. Peden that he was having trouble searching for a new pastor. He said it was very difficult to satisfy the Dexter members. Peden arranged for Nesbitt to meet Martin L. King, Jr. Who was this Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was from Atlanta, the black "Athens" of the South. There was Atlanta University, Spelman College for girls, Morris Brown University, Clark College, Gammon Theological Seminary, and Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College). Atlanta was the world's largest center for Negro education and the colleges occupied an important place in municipal life.
According to the Works Projects Administration (WPA 1942:5) book on the city of Atlanta, perhaps no other Southern city showed so great a divergence, not only economic but educational and social, in the condition of its black citizens. This was reflected in the difference between Decatur Street and Auburn Avenue.
The less fortunate groups were largely concentrated in western Atlanta. The poorer Negroes live squalidly amid ramshackle wooden shanties and rooming houses crowded with many families and the cries of little children. The most populous business thoroughfare was Decatur Street, running eastward between rows of pawnshops with crowded windows, restaurants emitting the sharp smell of frying fish, and clothing stores with suits and overcoats hung over ropes along the pavements.
Auburn Avenue was a far quieter Negro business district of decorous hotels and office buildings. There was evidence of still greater refinement along Ashby Street and in the vicinity of Atlanta University, where many of the more prosperous blacks maintained attractive homes. The university set and their friends maintained a good living standard for themselves.
The early elite in Atlanta, with but few exceptions, lived in the then fashionable Auburn Avenue section of Northeast Atlanta. They originated from the mostly mulatto house-servant group, who were in a few cases aided by whites with whom they maintained close relationships. As compared to the field hands, most seized the advantage to pull improve their situation. Life for the mulatto aristocracy of old Atlanta (circa 1890-1910) centered primarily on the respectable First Congregational Church, select Atlanta University, and perhaps half a dozen exclusive social clubs. Many of the elite had themselves been educated at Congregationalist Atlanta University (or its affiliated grammar and secondary school) and ordinarily sent their children there to be prepared for teaching and other white-collar occupations. However, a minority, connected with the A.M.E. church, the Methodist church, North, and its affiliated Clark University, or with the Atlanta Baptist, were accorded recognition in the highest social circles. (Meier 1992:105-106)
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s father, Mike King, of the Ebenezer Baptist Church was more like most black Southern preachers of the times than he was like Vernon Johns. He was practical, organized, and intensely loyal to his people. His talents were harmonious with the theme of the most popular religious book of the 1920s, The Man Nobody Knows (1925), by advertising executive Bruce Barton (Branch 1988:41). This book was the decade's most popular work on Jesus (Ahlstrom 1972:905). Barton gave the Man from Nazareth front rank among the world's business organizers. Not only was President Coolidge declaring that America's business was business, many expounded the religious corollary equating being rich with being good.
In 1942 Martin entered Booker T. Washington High School as a thirteen-year old tenth-grader. King Jr. soon decided to follow his father into the ministry. On a word from Rev King, Sr., Martin was quickly ordained as a full-fledged minister and made assistant pastor of his father's church. He took his first pulpit oration from "Life Is What You Make It," a published sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick of New York's Riverside Church.
King had his first frank discussions about race on the Morehouse campus in Atlanta. Many of the countless theories about racism emanated from the sociology department and King decided to prepare himself for a legal career by majoring in sociology. By the end of his junior year, however, he had given up talk of becoming a lawyer and was noncommittal when asked about his future.
In 1948 King went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here was an atmosphere of unorthodox freethinking. He fell under the influence of the Social Gospel movement. One of his heroes was Walter Rauschenbusch, a German Lutheran-turned Baptist preacher of the Social Gospel.
During his last year at Crozer, Martin read Reinhold Niebuhr. It changed his fundamental outlook on religion. The Social Gospel lost a good deal of its glow for him almost overnight. More of a realist than the Social Gospel thinkers, Niebuhr said, among other things, that whites would not admit the black to equal rights if not forced to do so. During his Christmas holidays in 1949 Martin Luther King, Jr. devoted himself exclusively to a study of the works of Marx. Reverend Barbour (Lewis 1970:36) reported that Martin was "economically a Marxist."
In June 1951 Martin graduated from Crozer with the highest grade average in his class. He delivered the valedictory address and was awarded the Pearl M. Plafker citation for the most outstanding student and the J. Lewis Crozer fellowship of $1,300 for graduate study. He went on to graduate school in divinity at Boston University.
On June 18, 1953 Martin married Coretta Scott shortly before he completed his residential requirements for his doctorate. He still had to write his thesis. His goal was to be placed in a ministerial position by September 1954.
First Meeting with Johns
Through the intercession of T. M. Alexander, Sr., of Atlanta, a friend of the King family, Martin was invited to preach at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Johns learned that Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was planning to invite Martin to deliver a guest sermon. Vernon would be compromising the sermon of King by offering competition to King because both sermons would be on the same day. Johns, however, decided to take advantage of the situation anyway. Vernon made travel arrangements and hitchhiked from Petersburg to Atlanta. Let off at the bus station, he called the father of the young preacher and asked if he could ride down to Montgomery with his son. So Martin Luther King, Jr. chauffeured Johns from the Atlanta bus station to Ralph Abernathy's house.
At dinner the three men (Abernathy 1989:126) sat in the living room and talked about the oppression of their people and the growing belief that a sea of change was taking place. They all agreed that Brown v. the Board of Education had altered forever the conditions on which the continuing struggle would be predicated. "No longer was the law unambiguously on the side of Jim Crow. It now appeared as if the law was on our side, that the federal government might eventually be pressed into service in our fight for freedom."
Abernathy (1989:126&129) rejected the idea that the civil rights movement was just a converging of chances. Abernathy had been greatly influenced by Vernon Johns and when King came to Montgomery, Abernathy worked on making King more interested in civil rights. King and Abernathy would meet to talk about various projects. Together Abernathy and King planned to turn Montgomery into a model of social justice and racial amity. "Martin provided the philosophic framework for the whole plan and we both insisted that its implementation be completely and militantly nonviolent. Martin and I had thoroughly read and absorbed the teaching of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi on this subject. . . .we ... knew in general what had to be done."
There might be a little bit of exaggeration by hindsight, but Abernathy (1989:126) wrote that King "was forthcoming in his advocacy of an active program to force the issue and to bring about freedom more rapidly. He was, he said, committed to the preaching of a Social Gospel that would awaken the Christian churches and mobilize them in the fight against segregation. He indicated that he had been working on plans to do just that and when the time came to do battle, he hoped the churches would be ready." King said it would take several years before he could put his plans into action.
At the dinner, Johns advised King "If you take my church and a nigra named Randall is still there on the Board, you'd better be very careful." (Branch 1988:106)
On January 24, 1954 while King delivered a trial sermon at Dexter, Vernon Johns preached "Segregation After Death" at Ebenezer. (Carson :29 & 42) King preached "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life." "As the pulpit committee shepherded him around the church he heard stories about Vernon Johns, "a militant guy,' who had exhorted the congregation like a 'whirlwind' to get involved in social issues. But people at Dexter were 'scared people' who tended to accept the racial status quo." (Oates 1982:48)
The pulpit committee asked King to accept a position at Dexter. King flew back to Boston. He pondered the question: Why take the job when he knew that by returning to the South he would be returning to segregation? King in his book wrote that "We had the feeling that something remarkable was unfolding in the South, and we wanted to be on hand to witness it."
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 University, 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)
Martin Luther King Jr. (1956:38) praised Johns in his book on the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. "Vernon Johns was a brilliant preacher with a creative mind and an incredibly retentive memory. A fearless man, he never allowed an injustice to come to his attention without speaking out against it. When he was still pastor, hardly a Sunday passed that he did not lash out against complacency. He often chided the congregation for sitting up so proudly with their many academic degrees, and yet lacking the very thing the degrees should confer, that is, self- respect. One of his basic theses was that any individual who submitted willingly to injustice did not really deserve more justice."
In May 1954 King preached his first regular sermon at Dexter. He commuted for the next four months from Boston to Montgomery and back. Martin was very young looking. His wife said that Professor Mary Fair Burks, of Alabama State College, came to Dexter with Jo Ann Robinson, who was also a professor at the college. When she saw Martin, Professor Burks said, "You mean that little boy is my pastor? He looks like he ought to be home with his mamma." At first she thought he could not possibly have anything to say that would interest her, but after hearing him preach she was deeply impressed. (King, Coretta Scott 1969:100)
In September 1954 King moved into the parsonage on Jackson Street. He wrote his doctoral thesis and preached. He also formed a Social and Political Action Committee. Among the members were Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson and Rufus Lewis. He joined the NAACP and made several speeches for them. Rosa Parks met Dr. King when he was guest speaker at an NAACP meeting. She said that Dr. King was new to Montgomery, and Dr. Abernathy had been trying to get him active in civil-rights work. King found that the NAACP was not doing too much. Before King's arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the local NAACP's energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves, a drummer in a black band, who had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. The case dragged on for a total of seven years before he was put to death in 1958.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
On May 17, 1954, two weeks after King's first sermon as pastor-designate of Dexter, Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down the Court's decision in the Brown case, without advance notice. This decision raised considerably the hopes of blacks for defeating Jim Crow segregation. (When Vernon Johns heard the news he was riding in a car with Wyatt Tee Walker. Walker stopped the car and both men got out, sank down on their knees, and gave thanks in prayer for the Supreme Court decision.)
Within the eighteen months preceding Rosa Parks's famous bus ride, at least four other black citizens of Montgomery -- Claudette Colvin, Mrs. Amelia Browder, a Mrs. Smith, and the Reverend Vernon Johns -- had indicated their displeasure with the system when they, too, on separate occasions refused to obey an order to give up their seats to white passengers. (Taylor 1976:236) Be that as it may, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair Department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. The Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement started when she refused to relinquish her seat and move to the back of the bus.
|The site in Montgomery where Rosa Parks made her famous stand.
(Note historical marker.)
Concerning Rosa Parks, Vernon Johns told Alton Morton (19 ): "It's only a few people that you can find that can get a glimpse of what you can imagine what is going to happen. And Rosa Parks was one of those rare people who could catch a vision."
In June 1953 the black community of Baton Rouge began a mass boycott against segregated buses. The official leader of the boycott was the Reverend T. J. Jemison, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He held a bachelor's and a master's degree from two black universities, Alabama State and Virginia Union. Jemison was a "newcomer" to the city and this was important as he was not associated with any of the factions in the community. The impact of the mass bus boycott went beyond Baton Rouge. The news of it was disseminated through the black ministerial networks across the country. In 1956, Rev. Jemison would carry the blueprint of the Baton Rouge movement to the National Baptist Convention and make it available to activist clergy. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, both ministers in Montgomery, Alabama, were well aware of the Baton Rouge movement and consulted closely with Reverend Jemison when the famous Montgomery boycott was launched in 1955 (Morris 1984:43&25).
The advantage of having Dr. King as president of the boycott organization was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil-rights work that he hadn't been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies. King (Washington 1986:451) filed suit in the Unites States Federal District Court asking for an end to bus segregation. At the hearing on May 11, 1956 Vernon Johns (on a brief visit to Montgomery) was there. Ralph Abernathy sat on one side of King, Jr. and Johns on the other.
Events in Prince Edward County
In Farmville the whites reacted slowly to the black school strike started by Barbara Johns (Smith, Bob 1965:69). They hoped to be able to persuade the blacks to withdraw support for the suit in return for a new school. The new black high school building was constructed one year after suit was filed asking the court to direct the
Farmville school board to equalize facilities. Several years of petitioning by the black parents of Farmville prior to the suit had only led to promises, but no action (J&G, June 21, 1958:8)
A new Robert R. Moton High School was completed during the 1953-54 school term, at a cost of nearly $900,000 dollars (Wilkerson 1969:270). It was a fine structure, with separate auditorium, cafeteria, and gymnasium; an intercommunication system; a comprehensive program of studies; well equipped laboratories and shops for science, art, commercial subjects, home economics, agriculture, and industrial arts; and an apparently able faculty of twenty-five teachers, all paid according to the same scale that applied in the white high schools.
Following the Brown decision, white resistance to school desegregation started to build in Prince Edward County. The whites organized the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties to prevent the integration of the schools in Virginia. J. Barrye Wall, editor and publisher of the Farmville Herald, and Robert B. Crawford, Farmville dry cleaner and civic leader, were two of the major founders of the group. The organization soon had 2,000 members and active chapters in twelve counties and in the city of Petersburg (Gates 1954:34-35,38).
In June 1955 white citizens of the county formed a private education corporation to raise the money needed to pay the county's sixty-three white teachers their next year's salaries. There were 1,570 white children, but no plans were made for educating the 1,840 black children of the county.
The fourth circuit court sitting at Baltimore, Maryland ordered Prince Edward County to start desegregation (J&G November 16 1957:1). But in 1959 Prince Edward County closed its schools rather than integrate them. The schools remained closed for the next four years.
Whites abandoned the public school system in Prince Edward County with the founding of the Prince Edward Education Foundation. The all white private schools opened September 1959. The Prince Edward Education Foundation opened two private high schools and six private grade schools in a score of miscellaneous buildings scattered over the country -- stores, churches, private homes, and other places. They used a motion-picture theater for assemblies. Henry Powell found himself without a job and had to move back to Philadelphia in order to make a living. Most of the black children received no more formal education until the Prince Edward Free School Association was established in the fall of 1963 (Gates 1964:211-212).
Henry Powell moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where he taught for two years. In 1961 he went back to Philadelphia to teach, but could not stand the city after being in the country. He only stayed for two years and then in 1963 went to teach in Lynchburg. He stayed in the Lynchburg school system until his retirement some time around 1987.
Reverend L. Francis Griffin
The story of the developments which followed the school strike and integration case in and around Farmville is a moving one -- truly heroic leadership by the local minister in the face of varied threats and persecutions, including efforts (often successful) by the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties and other racist forces to intimidate black parents in the town (Smith, Bob 1965:72). The majority of his congregation supported him. For instance, he received solid support by independent black farmers in the countryside. But there was enough opposition to make his life very difficult. There was a minority in the congregation that was unhappy about his brand of social gospel and his role in the school strike. He heard from as far away as Washington of trouble in his church.
On the night of June 17, 1959, the Negro community of Prince Edward held a mass meeting at the New Hope Baptist Church near the Charlotte County line in response to the action of the board of supervisors cutting off all funds for public schools (Smith, Bob 1965:169-170). Rev. Griffin delivered a lecture on the injustices suffered by blacks and the necessity of standing up to them. The Rev. Wyatt T. Walker of Petersburg also emphasized this doctrine. To help some of the high school seniors, Rev. Griffin, through contacts arranged with Kittrell College, had that college offer high school as well as college courses. The college asked for half the normal tuition from each of the Prince Edward high school students, but said that even those who could not raise the money should be sent. Some sixty-eight students took advantage of the opportunity.
At a meeting in Washington in January 1960, under the sponsorship of the National Council of Negro Women, representatives of twenty-one organizations named Griffin chairman of a project to set up "training centers" for the black children (Smith, Bob 1965:195). Churches, lodge halls, and other available private buildings were used. But the centers were not real schools. They were "morale builders" only.
On February 1, 1960, a group of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students in Greensboro, North Carolina, touched off a national wave of sit-ins when they attempted to be served at a downtown lunch counter. When black college students and others in Petersburg attempted to desegregate the library, Rev. Griffin was with them (Smith, Bob 1965:200-201).
The situation was not an easy one for Rev. Griffin. Carl Rowan of the Minneapolis Tribune had visited the Reverend back in 1953 and found him to be full of confidence. Returning to Prince Edward County in December 1955, Rowan (Smith, Bob 1965:133-134) found a far different picture. "Our rap on the door produced a far different figure from the confident leader I had met in 1953. Here was a sad-faced man, coughing, and wheezing, his eyes betraying a wish that we had not caught him in such circumstances." The house was bitterly cold, there were no rugs on the floor, and the furniture in the back bedroom was gone. "I looked at his children, their faces marked by what I was sure was ringworm. One child ran barefoot on the floor. The hair of the girls were uncombed. Their clothing bore holes that now showed a need for patches."
The whites had retaliated against the minister. The white merchants had come to a "gentleman's agreement" to freeze the reverend out of the community (Smith, Bob 1965:134). The merchants were suddenly demanding full payment instead of extending credit. This was especially true of the fuel company, which explains why Rowan found the house so bitterly cold in December. Other merchants demanded full payment of his credit debt. Some even had warrants issued against him for nonpayment of debt. They even repossessed his car.
Worst of all was the social ostracism the family had to endure from the whites and some blacks in the community. It was deemed "dangerous" to be seen with the Griffins (Smith, Bob 1965:138). The reverend's wife suffered the worse from this treatment. She had suffered mental distresses in the past but she now plunged toward a complete breakdown. Rowan asked "What had happened to Mrs. Griffin? The charm, the attractiveness were gone. She seemed but a tired, distraught woman."
Willie Reid (1997) remembered that Griffin never had any money. If you gave him $50 dollars and on his way home he met someone in need, that person was going to end up with a part of that $50 dollars. Reid and Griffin would often go on ambulance trips, sometimes all the way to Richmond, because of the difficulty of getting blacks accepted in the local white hospital.
Soon after Rowan's visit Griffin's five children were placed under the care of their grandmother (Smith, Bob 1965:138-139). Mrs. Griffin was in the hospital. The Reverend himself suffered from depression. He was so depressed, in fact, that he offered his resignation, saying he was going to take another job elsewhere. The job did not materialize, and the congregation asked him if he would be willing to stay and he did. He eventually took on the additional pastorates of two churches in small Virginia towns. His economic situation gradually improved somewhat.
As the Prince Edward case became better known, Griffin as the central local figure became something of a celebrity (Smith, Bob 1965:201&203-205). At the time, Griffin suffered from an ulcer on which the doctors eventually had to operate. His financial problems had cleared up with his joining the NAACP payroll as special consultant in the county. With the growing civil rights movement, Prince Edward became the target for civil rights activists. Griffin was so influential by now that nothing could be done in terms of civil rights without his cooperation. Dr. King came to view him as a "giant."
When some of the young preachers of the black community in Farmville asked if they could stage sit-ins and closed school demonstrations in Farmville in the spring of 1963, Griffin gave the idea his blessings (Smith, Bob 1965:207). He even brought in a youthful organizer from the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). All that summer pupils marched in the streets of Farmville carrying placards. Some of them were arrested. Griffin was by now president of the state NAACP.
In a decision handed down on May 25, 1964, the United States Supreme Court ordered that a decree be entered which would guarantee public education for blacks in Prince Edward County. Such a decree quickly followed, and, on June 23, the "Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted four to two to comply with the Federal Courts and reopen public schools. The public schools finally reopened in September 1964 (Gates 1964:213).
The job of opening the school was given to Dr. Neil V. Sullivan, a New Hampshireman who had pioneered in non-graded teaching and who had experience teaching various kinds of deprived students. At the time he was in charge of a Long Island, New York, school system. He agreed to serve in Prince Edward for a year and set about putting together a staff that would answer the board and various needs of the deprived Negro children of Prince Edward County. (Smith, Bob 1965:240)
One of the outstanding students going to the school at the time of Sullivan's tenure was Leslie "Skippy" Griffin, sixteen-year-old son of the Reverend L. Francis Griffin and possessor of the highest scholastic average at Moton High (Sullivan 1965:192-193). (He was later to be Director of Community Relations for the Boston Globe.) He accompanied Sullivan on a trip to Washington and to the Supreme Court building, March 30, 1964. The court was hearing Case 592, Griffin v. County School Board (Prince Edward). The children of two other Negro families, the original plaintiff (Davis v. County School Board) and his successor (Allen v. County School Board), had passed beyond school age and outgrown their roles in the case during the intervening years while the issues remained unresolved. Therefore, one of the children in whose name Prince Edward County was now being asked to provide integrated public schooling was none other than young Skippy Griffin, present to watch the proceedings even though, as it turned out, his father was unable to attend, forced back from Richmond by bad road conditions.
Today on the grounds of the former Robert R. Moton High School is a handsome new granite and bronze monument, dedicated to the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, who was called "the fighting preacher" and the "love preacher". It faces Griffin Boulevard, formerly Eli Street, in Farmville. The Town Council renamed the street after the 1980 death of Griffin, former minister of the First Baptist Church. Known as a man who "knew that democracy was not a spectator sport," he was a major participant in the civil rights arena.
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