Vernon Johns, Blogger
From time to time here at Cliopatria, I've mentioned my day job as the editor of The Vernon Johns Papers. He is best known as Martin Luther King's predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In the critical month after the March on Washington and the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, King sent his personal attorney to Johns to ask for his sermon notes. In the crisis, the man, whose eloquence we remember so well, thought that he had run dry and turned to a mentor for fresh words of judgment and hope. I compared their preaching in"Quoting, Merging, and Sampling the Dream: Martin Luther King and Vernon Johns," Southern Cultures, IX (Summer 2003): 28-48. (Access restricted)
It's been a terrific exercise of my best skills as a historian: first, because Johns' papers were twice destroyed and I've had to search out whatever had survived in other ways; secondly, because Johns' family background was a painful one that he transfigured in order to make it bearable, I've had to work through all that to find out what was true, literally and figuratively (see:"Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, CXII [Spring 2005]: 372-418, which also appears in: Joyce Appleby, ed., The Best American History Essays, 2006 [New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2006]); and finally, because he was a well-educated preacher who impressed congregations with his literary allusions, tracking the sources of his allusions has been a fresh education in western and African American intellectual traditions, their popular appropriations, and, occasionally, misappropriations.
One of my better discoveries were two series of newspaper columns that Vernon Johns published in Philadelphia and Charleston, West Virginia, African American newspapers in the 1930s and early 1940s. They were previously unknown, even to his children, and helped to flesh out the documentary record for his life and work in a period when the record had been very thin. Under the fold is one of those columns, from the West Virginia Digest, 23 March 1940, with a couple of footnotes, and a concluding discussion of the document's importance.
IXIf the bodies of Negroes lynched by white mobs were piled together and, beside these, the bodies of Negroes murdered by other Negroes, the former would make a hill and the latter a mountain. In Lynchburg Virginia, during my residence of six years, it happened twice, that Negroes murdered three of their race in one night. And twice during this period six Negroes were murdered by Negroes in one week. All this in a population of 8,000. The Negro population of Charleston has put several black notches on the butt of its guns in the last two months. It would be enlightening to see how long it will take upward of fifty thousand white Charlestonians to murder as many of each other as a hand full of Negroes have done since this young year arrived.
These killings seldom involve any weighty matters. One man steps on another's foot. A woman two times a man who has four timed her. Quarreling over a crap game in which the entire stake would not buy the handles of a coffin. Too much soda in the bread. It is a pity that such offenses can call loudly enough to the killer instinct to keep us piling up these murder records. Not even unpremeditated injuries to bad feet should be so drastically punished.
For some time now we have been sponsoring Anti-Lynching campaigns to stop the mob, Saul, from slaying his thousands. But nothing has been attempted to restrain little Black David from slaying his ten thousands.* The first, we should have done; and not have left the other undone. After all a black man is just as dead when killed by another Negro, as when done to death by a crowd of white hoodlums. I suspect the provocation is usually greater when a mob destroys a Negro than it is when Negroes destroy each other.
If an attempt to reduce the murder rate among Negroes is in order, we must try to get at the issue of these excessive killings. Could it be that we suffer over-doses of injustice at the hands of white people, too strong to invite reprisals, and proceed then to take out on each other the resentment we feel for the whites. There is such a thing as the transfer of animosities. You remember the judge who told the girl brought before him for speeding that she was so pretty he would not fine her, but the first homely woman that came before him for the same offense would catch it heavy. The Lieutenant curses the Sergeant, and the Sergeant, not permitted to curse up to the Lieutenant, curses down to the Corporals and Privates.
Poverty and Ignorance have been overdone as causes of crime. Both of these have decreased since the first days of our freedom; crime has not. Poverty and Ignorance do not of themselves provide the assertiveness present in murder. Of themselves, they are not even much too harmless. It is when touched by the spirit of viciousness that they become murderous; but this is true of the rich and intelligent as well. Of course, when the vicious content is present, the poor and ignorant are blessed with no such deterrents to crime as the rich and learned. Wealth and learning always provide a wider range of interests, thus opening a gap of escape from insistent ideas and the pressure of circumstances which lead to crime. The rich man can get away from his vexations to the Country Club. He can arrange to see [her?] in Bermuda, or Egypt. The poor Negro, to the contrary, limited by lack of funds, must meet his lady-love within shooting distance of some other claimant; around the corner or behind the garage.
The learned man instead of brooding over emotional frustrations can recall some classic instance of broad-minded behavior in similar circumstances. There is Voltaire's mistress, for instance: pretty, rich, and talented; wrote a celebrated work on The Physics of Fire. St. Lambert takes her from Voltaire. Instead of sharpening his razor, the Philosopher sighs:"Such are Women (he might have added much more such are men). I supplanted Richelieu, St. Lambert turned me out. One nail drives out the other." Instead of murder, a little poem does the trick:St. Lambert, it is all for theeThen there is Kipling's advice to soldiers, which the waning husband may use:
The flower grows;
The rose's thorns are all for me;
For thee, the rose!**If your wife goes wrong with a comrade, be Loath
To shoot when you catch ‘em; you'll hang, on my oath:
Make him take ‘er and keep ‘er; that'll be hell for ‘em both.***
23 March 1940
*"... Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands." I Samuel 18:7.
**Johns quotes and paraphrases this story from Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926), 236-37. Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706-1749) became the Marquese du Chatelet, when she married in 1725. She gave birth to three children and had affairs with several men, including Louis Francois Armand de Plessis, the duc de Richelieu, before becoming the lover of the French philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet or Voltaire (1694-1778), in 1733. An accomplished intellectual, Mme du Chatelet published treatises on philosophy and religion, a treatise on the physics of fire, and the first French translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. While married to the marque du Chatlelet and living with Voltaire, she became the lover of the French poet Jean-Francois de Saint Lambert. The three men were present when Mme du Chatelet died in childbirth in 1749. Thereafter, Voltaire wandered through their house in Paris at night calling her name.
If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loathRudyard Kipling,"The Young British Soldier," VIII, 1-3.
To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er; that'll be Hell for them both, ...
This column, one of 29 that I found, is an example of Vernon Johns' efforts to reach beyond his own congregation with a message for a larger African American community. In that sense, it's an example of the blogger's instinct to reach beyond local communities to interested audiences abroad. His tough language here, in addressing the difficult issue of black-on-black crime is characteristic of much of Vernon Johns' work. While never ignoring or excusing white violence, for instance, he told his African American audience what he believed it most needed to hear.
Throughout his career, whether he was addressing a white audience, as he did in letters to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, or a black one, as he did in these newspaper columns, Vernon Johns' prophetic voice often irritated his audience. Four months after this column appeared in the West Virginia Digest, its boldest headlines featured the lurid details of an apparent affair between and suicide of a church officer and a member of his choir. On 27 April 1940, Vernon Johns' newspaper column condemned the Digest by name and the black press, in general, for its scandal-mongering."THE COLORED PRESS IS UNDOUBTEDLY THE BUZZARD OF JOURNALISM," he wrote. So far as I can tell, it was the last newspaper column Vernon Johns ever published.
comments powered by Disqus
Jonathan Dresner - 4/3/2006
I figured that was probably the case (or you'd have said something about it), but I had to ask.
Ralph E. Luker - 4/2/2006
There's probably no way to know the answer to your question, since the destruction of his papers probably destroyed any record in correspondence of any exchanges between Johns and the editor and/or publisher of the newspaper.
Jonathan Dresner - 4/2/2006
It would be fascinating to know if Johns' column-writing retirement was a result of his "Buzzard" declaration or if that was his way of announcing that he was done with journalists.
Ralph E. Luker - 4/2/2006
Thanks! Got it, now.
Sharon Howard - 4/2/2006
Ralph, the post appears to come to an abrupt halt at "Throughout his career, whether he was addressing a white audience, as he did in -". A quick look at the source code reveals that it's there but not showing up because of an error in the HTML at this point.
- Thomas Jefferson Wrote What? Carson’s Constitutional Misstep
- Agriculture Linked to DNA Changes in Ancient Europe
- A Century Ago, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Changed Everything
- At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, a Heralded Alum, Is Recast as an Intolerant One
- Fact-checking Trump's claim that thousands in New Jersey cheered when World Trade Center tumbled