Blogs > Cliopatria > Documenting Vernon Johns

Oct 4, 2005 1:22 am

Documenting Vernon Johns

I've mentioned from time to time that my primary research interest these days is preparation of a critical edition of the essays, sermons, and speeches of Vernon Johns. Most people don't know who he is, much less why one would want to do such a thing. I'm doing it because Johns was a legendary figure in the circle of Martin Luther King and the others at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Just after King was assassinated in Memphis, a reporter interviewing his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, asked all the obvious questions about what happened, recollections of the past, plans for the future. The reporter could make no sense of Abernathy's answers, because they kept returning to ruminations about Vernon Johns and redemption in the face of violent death.

Vernon Johns was King's predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and mentor of Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and a host of others in SCLC's circle. His niece led a student boycott of the segregated black high school in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that eventuated in one of the principle cases grouped with Brown v. Board of Education and he was involved in the Montgomery bus boycott. So, he's remembered more by the inner-circle of the civil rights movement's leadership than he is by its historians. My research has led to the publication of two major articles,"Quoting, Merging, and Sampling the Dream: Martin Luther King and Vernon Johns," Southern Cultures, 9 (Summer 2003), 28-48; and"Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 112 (2004, #4), 372-418. The latter article has been selected to appear in a new series of books sponsored by the Organization of American Historians and published by Macmillan/Palgrave. Joyce Appleby will edit the first volume, Best Articles in American History, 2005 (Spring 2006). But the publication of the volume of Johns's essays, sermons, and speeches remains to be done.

It's been a remarkable challenge to my best skills as a historian. In the first place, there is no collection of Vernon Johns's manuscripts anywhere because his papers were twice destroyed – once in a housefire in 1943 and once, after his death in 1965, when a thoughtless tenant simply threw them out. Fortunately, there was a published collection of his work: Samuel Lucius Gandy, ed., Human Possibilities: A Vernon Johns Reader, Including an Unfinished MS., sermons, essays, addresses, and a doggerel (Washington, DC: Hoffman Press, 1977). About a half dozen copies of it survive in libraries around the country. Unfortunately, it had many transcription and printer's errors; but, without it, the job would have been far more difficult because Vernon Johns's children had little but memories of him and, like most memory, theirs were flawed. [ ... ]

So, I conducted a massive search for whatever survived elsewhere in print, manuscript, and tape recordings. Over a period of several years, I gathered enough additional material to double the number of documents that Gandy had published. I found, for instance, two series of newspaper columns in fairly obscure African-American newspapers, a half dozen taped sermons and lectures, and a series of letters to the editor. Finding them was difficult. I scrolled through 50 thick microfilm reels of the Montgomery Advertiser to find a half dozen of Vernon Johns's letters to the editor. Here is one of the shorter ones, with an explanatory headnote and footnote. I like to think of Montgomery's white folk reading it over morning coffee.

May Judges Come to Hate Slavery

On 7 August 1950, in his regular column for the Montgomery Advertiser,"Off the Bench," Alabama Circuit Court Judge Walter B. Jones published"Memories of John Brown," a column highly critical of the old abolitionist.* John Brown was"one of the ugliest characters in American history," said Jones; he"hated slavery and he hated anybody who owned slaves." The judge recalled Brown's role in the murder of several Kansans who supported slaveholding and in seizing the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Jones noted that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau and, even, Victor Hugo had expressed their sympathy with John Brown's cause."It is no defense of him" to say that John Brown believed"that God almighty had given him a special commission to smite the enemies of the Lord" or that he"did evil, ... not for himself, but for a cause," wrote the Montgomery judge. Slavery was sanctioned by the United States Constitution, had existed at one time in most American states and"thousands of the finest people in the country owned slaves." The pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church replied to Judge Jones in a letter to the editor on 8 August.

Editor, Montgomery Advertiser:

It is fortunate for John Brown's memory that Judge Walter Jones finished his article today on one of the"ugliest characters in American history" with an array of witnesses to his character on the other side. Emerson, Alcott, Longfellow, Greeley, Thoreau, with one foreigner of Victor Hugo's proportion, thrown in – should weigh pretty well on the other end; especially since the Judge's opinion is"off the bench."

A little prophecy of Emerson's will aid us in an appraisal of John Brown's place in history. The morning after John Brown was hanged, Emerson entered in his Journal"The Emancipation of slaves is nearer by a hundred years." American slavery was 239 years old that morning. Two years later, an army was marching, composed of Northerners and Southerners to the strains of"John Brown's Body Lies A Mouldering in The Clay – His Soul Is Marching On." Six years later, the slave was free!

John Brown also made an amazing prophesy concerning his sacrifice. A hundred thugs had been hired at $1.00 each (with money raised by a New England minister) to overpower the few guards at Charlestown and release Brown. When a representative of the movement conferred with him, he listened to the proposal and answered:"If the doors of this jail were left open, and unguarded, I would not leave. I am more good to my cause by hanging now than any other way." The Judge's article makes much of John Brown's brutality in Kansas, where blood answered blood in a struggle to make new soil slave or keep it free. But how does the blood drawn for freedom by old Brown's cutlass bulk against the blood drawn by the lash through 24 decades to [make?] slavery what it was? And you could not put an end to slavery by sprinkling rose water on Simon Legree's whiskers.

Would it not be better for North and South – white and black – to accept the results of the Civil War as a finished fact and give our joint attention to this Korean business? May we close now with sincere gratitude to Almighty God that"John Brown just hated slavery" and pray that all of us in this democracy, especially judges, may come to hate slavery and love freedom!

Vernon Johns, Minister
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

*Walter B. Jones,"Memories of John Brown," Montgomery Advertiser, 7 August 1950. Walter B. Jones, 1888-1963, was the son of Alabama Governor and United States District Judge, Thomas Goode Jones. Walter Jones served in Alabama's state legislature, on Montgomery's city commission and on Alabama's circuit bench for many decades before his death. He was a long-time columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser, a state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and editor of the Alabama Bible Society Quarterly. As a special judge in 1954, Jones presided over the cleanup of corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, and became a close advisor to state Attorney General John Patterson. He suggested to Patterson that the state prosecute the NAACP for failing to register as an out-of-state corporation, presided at proceedings that shut down the NAACP in the state for eight years and presided over proceedings in the landmark case, Sullivan v. New York Times, that eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. In 1956, a dissident Democratic elector for Alabama cast one electoral vote for Walter B. Jones for President of the United States.

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Rebecca Anne Goetz - 10/5/2005

Ditto on the thanks! This was an interesting post!

Caleb McDaniel - 10/5/2005

Thanks for sharing this, Ralph. One of my "dream courses" is to teach a seminar on John Brown that would track changes in representations of Brown over the years. This would be very helpful for that!