He became one of the most prominent African-American preachers of the 20th century but he was also considered by many a dangerous radical. Activist preacher Vernon Johns traveled through the segregated South speaking out against segregation in his sermons and demanding social justice and racial equality.
Due to his dangerous activism, many churches did not welcome him as a permanent pastor. So when he arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to take the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his wife and children asked him to take a more moderate stance on issues to be able to fit in well with the congregation. But not too long after being offered the pastorship at Dexter, he ignored the warnings of his family and deacons and started fighting against racism and segregation through radical sermons that made almost everyone including his church superiors uncomfortable.
The Dexter church leaders felt Johns was attracting too much attention to the church with his activism so they removed him from the church to make way for a new pastor who they thought would not cause problems. That new pastor was Martin Luther King, Jr., who would use the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice. All the same, it was Johns, the immediate predecessor of King, who laid the groundwork for King and other preachers to lead the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s but only a few know about his story.
Now known as the “father of the civil rights movement”, Johns was born on April 22, 1892, in Darlington Heights, Virginia. His mother, Sallie Branch Price, was the daughter of an enslaved Black woman and a white slave owner. Price lived with her white owner and his wife when Price lost her mother. Johns grew up knowing that his mother and her siblings, who were Black, had lived together with Whites without any problems, causing him to question why America should be a place of segregation.
An intelligent boy born with a sharp memory, Johns loved reading books and could memorize Bible passages as well as poems of great writers and philosophers such as Aristotle. Teaching himself Latin, German, and Greek, it was during his young days at the Boydton Institute, a Presbyterian mission school, that he first fell in love with theology and religion. He then went to the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1915. Three years later, he received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Oberlin and he was ordained in the Baptist ministry.
In 1920, he became the pastor of the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, and six years after, one of his sermons, entitled “Transfigured Moments,” was published in Joseph Fort Newton’s anthology Best Sermons, making Johns the first African American to be published in that collection. By 1929, Johns had become president of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Along the way, he would become known for his controversial sermons.
“His themes were simple and direct: the dignity of labor, the sacred-ness of earth and nature, the need for heroic leadership, the equality of all men and women before God, the immorality of segregation, the importance of social justice, and the value of plebian self-pride—all of this delivered in the simple but penetrating style of a brilliant and learned man who was close to the earth and to the needs of his people,” Robert Inchaust wrote in African-American Orators.
Johns became a preacher for the common people, urging his Black congregations to fight against segregation and work hard as he believed that economic independence was their means to gain freedom and equality. At home, Johns preached the same, encouraging his wife, children and friends to fight racism with Black entrepreneurship and boycotts and not to observe segregation laws.
As already mentioned, his message was not always well received. And in 1948 when he started leading the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, his radical sermons did not only disturb his new congregation and the church leaders but also the White citizens of Montgomery who started making threats of burning and lynching. Still, he went on with his radical sermons with titles such as “When the Rapist Is White” and “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes”. His sermons about manual labor did not also go down well with his Black, urban congregation at Dexter, and eventually, he was forced to leave the pulpit to his young successor, King, in 1952.
“The machinery of segregation was so rigid and well in place that those middle-class churches were careful not to engage a preacher who would rile the establishment. They were very busy trying to adapt to a system they did not feel they could change,” said veteran actor James Earl Jones, who played the role of Johns in a television movie based on Johns’ life called The Vernon Johns Story.
From Dexter, Johns became director of the Maryland Baptist Center in 1955 but left after five years due to misunderstandings about race relations. He never became pastor of a church again and in 1961, he became the editor and publisher of Second Century Magazine. Four years later, he passed away at a hospital in Washington, DC, after delivering a sermon at the Rankin Chapel at Howard University.
“There is a sermon called ‘The Romance of Death,’ which he delivered at the Howard University chapel as part of an annual convocation. This sermon is so eloquent. That’s the man I fell in love with,” actor Jones said in 1994 after playing Johns in The Vernon Johns Story.
The sermon “said that if you’re afraid to die, to do something you must do, and can’t do it, you’re licked by life. King picked that up to, if you haven’t found something worth dying for, you haven’t found something worth living for.”