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Reply #222: Reverend Vernon Johns (1892-1965) [View All]

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Brewman_Jax Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Oct-14-10 10:31 AM
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222. Reverend Vernon Johns (1892-1965)
One of the pioneers of the Civil Rights movement, Vernon Johns was a controversial figure noted for his eccentricities as well as his activism, who often spoke out against Blacks as well as Whites. Despite being a preacher, he was not a believer in non-violence and believed in taking whatever action is necessary to achieve God-given or civil rights.

Vernon Johns was born in Darlington Heights, VA, on April 22, 1892 the son of Willie Johns, a farmer, peddler and Baptist preacher, and Sallie Branch Price Johns. His fathers example fixed the sons ambition to be the best farmer, peddler, and preacher that he could be.

In 1911, he enrolled at Virginia Union University in Richmond. After a year there, Johns transferred to Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg. The transfer was crucial to his development and would shape his career for another two decades, for Virginia Seminary challenged Virginia Unions cooperation with Northern white Baptists with coeducation of men and women, an emphasis on the liberal arts, and unceasing devotion to African-American autonomy. Apparently expelled before he graduated from Virginia Seminary, Johns nonetheless won admission to the theological school at Oberlin College and became the student pastor of a small Congregational church in Painesville, Ohio. At Oberlin, Johns sampled experience and learning that no one of color might have found anywhere in Virginia and won honors among his classmates. He gave the annual student oration at Oberlin's Memorial Arch in 1918, received a B.D. from the Oberlin School of Religion and was ordained in the Baptist ministry. In further preparation for a career in teaching and ministry, he studied for a summer at the University of Chicago. Coincidentally, it was the summer of Chicagos race riot of 1919.

In 1919, Johns returned to Lynchburg to teach homiletics (the application of the general principles of rhetoric to public preaching.) and New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary. Continuing to teach at the seminary, he became the pastor of the city's large, historic Court Street Baptist Church, where he served from 1920 to 1926. His denunciation of Virginia Seminarys administration in 1923 for offering public relations sham in lieu of substantial nurture prompted his departure from its faculty, the withdrawal of "the hand of fellowship" by his state convention, and the disappearance of his name in the states influential black press. Yet, by then, he was often speaking beyond Virginia. Already, within the small circle of the countrys well educated and most prominent Afro-Baptist preachers, a hallmark of Vernon Johns preaching was the range and abundance of its learned literary references. In a single sermon, he might demonstrate his mastery of obscure biblical texts, sample classical allusions, quote William Shakespeare, cite a range of Anglo-American and Afro-American poets, visit authorities from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to William James and H. G. Wells, and seal the case with an illustration from contemporary fiction.

In 1926, Vernon Johns preached for the first of many times at Howard University's Rankin Memorial Chapel and was the first African-American preacher to have a sermon, "Transfigured Moments," published with those of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr and other luminaries in Joseph Fort Newton's Best Sermons. After launching a pamphlet series, Negro Pulpit Opinion, Johns left Lynchburg early in 1927 to succeed Mordecai Johnson as pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia, serve as director of Harlems Baptist Educational Center in New York City and pursue his hearts darling from the piedmont to the mountains of North Carolina. At the end of 1927, he married Altona Trent, the daughter of William Johnson Trent, the president of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Johns resigned his West Virginia pastorate and settled in New York. Vernon and Altona Trent Johns became the parents of six children, first three boys and, then, three girls.

In the summer of 1929, Johns left New York to become the president of Lynchburgs Virginia Theological Seminary and College. His impoverished alma maters financial problems had become critical since his departure and the school entered the depression already deeply in debt. Despite his best efforts to raise money, conditions at the school worsened and, in 1933, Johns left office in the face of student and faculty demands for his resignation. Briefly, he was interim pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but in 1934 Johns retired to the family farm in Prince Edward County, Virginia. There, he farmed, cut and sold pulpwood, operated a grocery store in Darlington Heights, and traveled, lecturing and preaching on the black church and college circuits. While Altona Trent Johns supplemented the family income by teaching public school in a one-room public school four miles from the family home, he led a struggle to get school buses for the countys African-American students.

In 1937 Johns was called again as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. A former college president, the published pastor of an important African-American congregation, and son-in-law of a college president, Vernon Johns seemed bound to a secure position in the African-American elite. Yet, he was rooted in the hard economic realities of Prince Edward County and grew contemptuous of the social pretense of the black bourgeoisie. As pastor of Charleston's First Baptist Church, he supplemented his income as a fishmonger. "I don't apologize for it," he later told students at Howard University, "because for every time I got one call about religion, I got forty calls about fish." It was a pattern of offense Johns would repeat. In 1941, Johns returned to Lynchburg as pastor of Court Street Baptist Church. Shortly after he was officially installed there, a struggle with lay authorities led to his ouster. At 51, Vernon Johns was back on the family farm and back out on the preaching circuits. As the youngest of his children entered school during World War II, his wife was still teaching in Prince Edward County. She would finish a graduate program at Teachers College of Columbia University and publish several books on music.

He became the preacher of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1948 and often upset its very conservative congregation. Titles of his sermons included "Segregation After Death", "Constructive (or Creative) Homicide", and "When The Rapist Is White". In 1949 following a string of murders and other violent acts against blacks, Johns changed the name of his planned sermon to "It Is Safe To Kill Negroes In Montgomery". This outraged the white community and led to him being summoned before the grand jury.

He strongly opposed segregation, on one occasion he refused to move into the 'Colored' section of a bus he was riding, and on another, walked into a 'White' restaurant and ordered a sandwich, knowing fully that he was putting his life at risk in doing so.

He believed that Black people should support each other economically and encouraged the Black people of Montgomery to sell produce such as fruit and vegetables to each other, instead of buying goods from the White man. He would sell fruit, vegetables and even fish to the congregation.

Over time, his relationship with Dexter Avenue Board of Deacons became increasingly strained and on several occasions, he resigned his position. The final straw came when he drove onto the campus of Alabama State University and sold a truckload of watermelons. The deacons were highly upset and the church finally accepted his fifth resignation.

Vernon Johns moved back to Virginia, and in 1953 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church finally appointed their new preacher, a young man by the name of Martin Luther King. When King became the pastor, he identified himself as Vernon Johns successor. Subsequent events made it inevitable that Johns would ever thereafter be known as Martin Luther Kings predecessor.

Vernon Johns was never the pastor of a church again. From 1953 to 1955, he shuttled between his Prince Edward County farm, where he raised livestock, and his wife's home in Petersburg, where he became a mentor to Wyatt Tee Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church. In 1956, Johns succeeded John Tilley, executive director of Martin Luther Kings young Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as director of the Maryland Baptist Center in Baltimore. Walker in turn succeeded Tilley at SCLC. By then, the legend of Vernon Johns was fixing itself in the firmament of the Afro-Baptist preachers who were the core of Kings SCLC. He was, after all, Kings predecessor, mentor of Ralph Abernathy and Wyatt Walker, and successor of John Tilley. Apart from Johns commanding presence, nothing entertained his fellow Baptist preachers more than Wyatt Walkers perfect mime of Vernon Johns rural Virginia accent or Ralph Abernathys latest Vernon Johns story. As for the man himself, Johns was forced to resign as director of the Maryland Baptist Center in 1960 after publicly rebuking white Baptist preachers in Baltimore for their failure of nerve in race relations. Thereafter, he still rode the preaching circuits and occasionally addressed mass meetings of the Lynchburg and Petersburg Improvement Associations. In 1961 and 1962, he edited Second Century, an annual magazine published in anticipation of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

After preaching his last sermon, "The Romance of Death," in Howard University's Rankin Chapel, Vernon Johns died on June 10, 1965 in Washington, D.C., just 3 months after the movements last great march, from Selma to Montgomery.

A made-for-TV movie based on his life was released in 1994 called The Road To Freedom--The Vernon Johns Story with James Earl Jones in the title role.
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