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Apr 19, 2004 2:33 am

Documenting Vernon Johns ...

Apart from sheparding Cliopatria, my day job is preparing the Vernon Johns Papers for publication. So, you've never heard of him? It gets worse: his papers were twice destroyed. Not much of a day job, you say?

Well, first of all, Vernon Johns is best known as Martin Luther King's predecessor as pastor of Montgomery, Alabama's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That's how he's featured in Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1989) and in Kenneth Fink's made-for-television film "The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story" (1994). He ought to be known for more than that because, to my knowledge, he is the only figure who stands in the background both to the litigation leading to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the direct action of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. So, although it is the title of one of his best sermons rather than a claim that he made for himself, my working title is "The Man Who Started Freedom".

No singly rational person would launch a Vernon Johns Papers Project. The man, himself, was careless with his documents. Notes for a sermon might be scratched out on whatever was at hand – a paper bag, an old letter, or notepaper – and might as readily be discarded. A housefire in 1943 destroyed whatever had accumulated in his first 50 years and a careless tenant threw out whatever accumulated in the rest of his life. A decade after his death in 1965, his widow and a professional friend collaborated in a book of remnants: Samuel Lucius Gandy, ed., Human Possibilities: A Vernon Johns Reader, Including an Unfinished Book MS., sermons, essays, addresses, and a doggerel. The transcriptions and editing done there are so careless, however, that Johns appears at times to be incoherent and the book is found only in about a half-dozen American libraries.

Consequently, my most time-consuming job has been in locating, transcribing, and editing whatever documents have otherwise survived and I am one relentless researcher. He was careless and I am relentless. We have met our match and we are us. The fact is that I have found a remarkable trove of survivors: a half-dozen taped speeches in remote archives, a treasury of old sermon notebooks at one of his former churches, a collection of sermons previously published as pamphlets, various articles published in obscure journals, two series of columns published in African American newspapers, and a number of letters to the editor. This manic researcher found most of those letters by pouring through 56 fat rolls of microfilm of the Montgomery Advertiser, but it was worth it. The really odd thing is that the white editors of the city's primary newspaper allowed the pastor of its most prestigious black congregation to tell the newspaper's white readers exactly what he thought they most needed to hear. For a sample document (pdf), see: here.

My subject, Vernon Johns, is an elusive character, at once sublimely learned and remarkably uncouth. He could preside at a fashionable wedding and then offend the newly-weds by hawking watermelons at their reception. He was born into a family that was the product of unspeakable violence. His white grandfather had owned his grandmother of color before the Civil War. She, rather than his white wife, bore his only children. When she sought a reunion with her slave husband after the war, however, Vernon Johns's white grandfather violated her with a stick and she bled to death. He paid no penalty for that murder. Only later, when he killed a white field hand, was he sentenced to death by hanging. That whole story is one that was suppressed in the family memory or recalled in more palatable ways. So far as I can tell, Vernon Johns never once referred to his white grandfather in public, but the childhood memory of a white grandfather who had murdered his grandmother of color runs as a submerged theme through all of his surviving documents. It goes far to explain why Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King's predecessor as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, was the apostle of armed resistance. In his later years, he never traveled the South without a loaded weapon at hand and he was a legendary character in the minds of Martin Luther King, Ralph D. Abernathy, and Wyatt Walker, the core leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

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Ralph E. Luker - 4/19/2004

No problem. Doing the Vernon Johns Papers is my substitute for some gainful employment. The film actually is pretty good, as such things go. It has a bias, in the sense that it makes the deacons of Dexter Avenue look worse than they actually were. That may have been a bit of retribution for the church's refusal to allow the film to be shot on site in Montgomery. It actually is shot at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia, a very historic African American church. The story in the film is told from the perspective of Johns' oldest daughter. He had six children -- each of whom probably had a slightly different take on the family's years in Montgomery.

Van L. Hayhow - 4/19/2004

My mistake, when you said "day job", I hought you were getting paid. What did you think of the movie?
Van L. Hayhow

Ralph E. Luker - 4/19/2004

Would that it were, Van. I'm doing it for the love of doing it.

Van L. Hayhow - 4/19/2004

Prof. Luker:
You didn't mention who you are doing the research for. Is it a foundation? an educational institution?
Van L. Hayhow

Ralph E. Luker - 4/19/2004

Right. I should have said that Ken Fink's "The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story" starred James Earl Jones in the sub-title role.

Ed Schmitt - 4/19/2004

It's fascinating to hear about your winding road of research. Wasn't there a movie about Johns starring James Earl Jones a few years back?

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/19/2004

How terrific! I hadn't heard of him either; I look forward to learning about him from you.

Claire Helen Louise George - 4/19/2004

Yes it is. I'd never heard of him but thank you for telling us.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

Almost makes me wish I did US history sometimes, so I could assign whatever it is you produce to some astounded students....