CHAPTER 9. REMEMBERING VERNON JOHNS

When the two made-for-TV films, "God's Bad Boy" and "The Vernon Johns Story," were aired, many people who considered themselves knowledgeable about the great Civil Rights struggles of the 1960's were surprised and puzzled to learn of the crucial, pivotal role played in that monumental social revolution by Vernon Johns. "Who is Vernon Johns?" they asked. "Why have we never heard of him? How could he have played such an important role and is only now being recognized?"

There's a very simple answer to these questions: Vernon Johns labored by choice in a self-imposed obscurity. He cared little for the plaudits of the crowd. Certainly he understood the fickle, transient nature of public approval and quite properly he distrusted it. He preferred a background role and anonymity to public acclaim. Or, as his daughter Jeanne (Mrs. Jeanne Johns Adkins) put it, "Daddy didn't give a damn."

Jeanne's observation reminded me that I had concluded pretty much the same thing as a result of a conversation I once had with Dr. Johns. I was curious about his presidency of Virginia Seminary. I had some insights into the problems of that institution and I knew that blame for its near collapse during his administration could not be laid at this feet. The collapse was the result of many years of mismanagement and the collapse, so long threatened, became a reality during his administration. Johns was merely a convenient scapegoat for those who had to place the blame on someone.

"Oh, Man!" he replied. "I didn't care about those men and their attempts to discredit me. I never lost a minute's sleep over their accusations!" I remember that I was surprised at his passive acceptance, or perhaps indifference, to the vilification, the terribly unjust charges that were leveled against him. And, to myself, I wondered, "Doesn't he even care about his reputation, about his good name?"

And yet, on another occasion, Jeanne made the observation that she believes her father was deeply wounded that he was not asked to participate in the March on Washington. Well might he have been wounded. He knew his value to the movement. Certainly he must have known that no individual had played a more important part than he in building the background against which the struggle was played out. Certainly he had earned a prominent place in the March. But the organizers of the march felt otherwise. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Quite simply, they feared Vernon Johns. They feared what he might do and say. Johns was a "loose cannon," a maverick. He could not and would not be controlled.

Given such a temperament and personality as Johns possessed, no one could predict what he would do. The organizers of the March feared that Johns had the potential to upset the carefully orchestrated program of peace and conciliation they envisioned. So that, I believe, the organizers, in order to protect the March, felt it wise to exclude Johns from their plans. I think this indicates that there were things that Johns cared about. The fact that he was disappointed and "deeply wounded" about his exclusion tells us that somewhere in his makeup was a desire for approval and acceptance.

Vernon Johns never sought popularity, nor did he seek to promote himself. All his energies were committed to getting the job done and let the credit fall where it might. So that, if others received credit that rightfully belonged to him, if his contributions went unnoticed, he would likely shrug it off with a so-be-it attitude, so long as the job was done.

After graduating from Virginia Union, I went to live on the farm in Darlington Heights, outside of Farmville. It was at the age of 24 that I met a man who was to change my life: the Rev. Vernon N. Johns. This was 1948 and Johns was down in Montgomery, Alabama, stirring up what would become the Civil Rights struggle. He would often travel up to Darlington Heights to check on his farm.

For nine years (1948-1957) I was a neighbor of Dr. Johns in Prince Edward County, Virginia and in those years a close friendly relationship developed between us, so that I thought of him almost as a surrogate father. As a matter of fact, Vernon Johns Jr. has often laughingly claimed that I could get more out of his father than he could. But I could always counter that he (Vernon Jr.) seemed to receive more consideration from my father than I did.


A Confused Young Man

Even though I had not been a good student in college, I somehow managed to graduate. And now that I had finished what next? I could not accept the fact that to the world, as a college graduate, I was an educated man. I just didn't feel educated. I was painfully conscious of great gaps and deficiencies in my knowledge. My thinking was that I had a great deal more to learn before I could consider myself educated.

I thought I should return to school and work on a master's degree. And this time, I vowed, I'll really apply myself -- no more goofing around, no more cutting classes, no more wasted afternoons sitting around drinking beer in Duck's cafe.

But I had no money and I knew that if I went back to school I would have to foot the bill myself. I could not ask more of my family. My thinking was that I would find a job and save some money with which to return to school.

None of this was clearly thought out. It was just a vague, half-formulated plan. I was not even sure that I wanted to pursue English (my college major) as a main subject any longer.

At one time, it had been my hope that I could find a job with one of the daily newspapers in Philadelphia, perhaps as a proof-reader. But I found that, at that time, such jobs seemed to be off-limits to blacks. Such jobs, when an opening appeared, were usually filled by white workers. I didn't know what to do with myself. I really needed some guidance and direction at that time. But fate intervened in such a way that my half-baked plans never became reality. Just before I graduated my father purchased and took possession of a farm in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

Also a big part of that fate was played by the Reverend Vernon Johns.

Dr. Johns was more than a mere friend. He was my mentor, my advisor, my confidant. He taught me and he showed me, he challenged and encouraged me as much by example as by direction. In retrospect it seems to me that at that time in my life Dr. Johns supplied a sense of direction and purpose for me. He gave me new things to think about and he taught me how to think of old things with a new perspective. Dr. Johns had a profound, lasting impact on my thinking and I am forever in his debt.

Vernon Johns was the man who awakened me intellectually. Johns was an avid reader in the field of Civil War history and early in our relationship he turned me onto the subject by lending me the book Sherman: Fighting Prophet. My father was also an avid and long time student of Civil War history, but at that time there was a wall between us that could not easily be breached. Johns woke me up and I got the history bug. I would then share what I read with Johns who was always interested in hearing new material on the Civil War.

I had known about Dr. Johns all my life it seems, but I didn't really get to know him until I moved down to the farm. I can remember hearing him speak once at a church in Philadelphia when I was very young. I don't remember anything at all of his sermon except that in his presentation he mentioned that he had a wife and a family of six children who lived on his farm. He said "The farm provides them with shelter, enough food to eat, and almost enough clothes to wear." Somehow the description struck my funny bone and I found myself chuckling at the mental picture of a group of farmers blithely going about their work wearing "almost" enough clothes.

Soon after I moved to the country, I met Dr. Johns. To my surprise I found him not at all as I had imagined him to be. In view of his reputation (he was indeed a legend in his own time), I had thought that he would be cold, dignified, aloof, and somewhat condescending. He was none of these things. He was instead a man of great personal charm, gregarious and outgoing, very approachable, very friendly, and easy to talk to. He had a splendid knack of making one feel immediately at home with him, almost as if they had been good friends for a long time.

The brightest spot in my nine year residence in that place was my frequent contact with Dr. Johns. Sometimes I would see him several times in the course of a week. At other times, several weeks might pass when I did not see him at all. Sometimes I would see him on his farm plowing or tending his livestock or doing some of the thousand and one things that always need to be done on a farm. Sometimes he would drop by my place for a visit and sometimes these visits lasted until the wee hours of the morning. At times I would drive him to a speaking engagement or go with him on some errand. But whenever I saw Dr. Johns it was unvaryingly a rewarding, enlightening experience for me.


An Errand with Unexpected Results

I remember well one of those errands. One day, I drove Dr. Johns over to the post office at Hampden-Sydney College, a few miles away, where he was to pick up some mail. While he was occupied, I went into a nearby store to make some small purchases. When I came out and looked for him, to my surprise, I found him a short distance away surrounded by students for whom he was translating from the Latin a plaque mounted on one of the buildings. The expressions on the faces of the students showed surprise and fascinated interest bordering on disbelief. Their perplexity was easy enough to understand, for Dr. Johns, dressed in rough farm garb and being black as well, certainly did not look the part of the scholar that he was. We had a good laugh about the incident on the way home.


Conversations about Money

I can remember one of the first conversations I had with Dr. Johns, once the ice was broken and I felt at ease in his company. I said "Rev. Johns. I heard that you once went to speak at a church and at the end of your sermon one of the officers of the church approached you and handed you an envelope and said ‘Rev. Johns, we can't pay you for your excellent sermon, but here's a token of our appreciation.' As the story goes, you handed the enveloped back to him saying ‘I don't want a token of your appreciation. I want you to pay me.' Is that story true?"

"Yes, it's true," he replied, "but you don't have the full story."

"Well, what is the full story?" I asked.

"A church in a large city (I can't remember whether it was in Washington, D.C. or Richmond) was without a pastor and they wrote me asking to supply the pulpit on a certain Sunday. In their letter they promised to meet my train, pay for my room and my supper, my breakfast the next morning, and the taxi fare to the church. When I handed the envelope back to that officer and told him that I wanted them to pay me, he had the temerity to ask, ‘Well, what will you do if we don't pay you?' Pulling the church's letter from my pocket, I said, ‘I will take your letter to court and charge the church with breach of contract in that you did none of the things that you promised and you will pay me then. So the choice is yours, pay me now, or pay me in court.'"

Apparently, the crestfallen officer left and went to the office of the church to arrange suitable compensation. "Then," said Rev. Johns, "that's when I preached my sermon. I told that congregation, ‘You thought that I wanted to be pastor of this fine, old church and you thought that I wanted to live in your beautiful parsonage and you thought that I wanted to bring my family here so that my children could go to the up-to-date schools in your city, rather than to the rude country schools where we live. You thought I wanted all these things so badly that I was going to submit without protest to your dishonesty. If what we've seen here today is indicative of the spirit of this church, then you are no different from the man who lurks in the alley waiting for someone to rob. There is no difference in intent, just in method."

They paid Rev. Johns an adequate amount and he left. Needless to say, they never called him again.


An Unscheduled Visit to Church

I was in Petersburg, Virginia one evening painting the town red with Vernon Johns Jr. About three o'clock in the morning, I decided to call it quits and leave for the farm, a drive of about eighty miles. Vernon Jr. wouldn't hear of it. He insisted I spend the night at his parents' home just across the street from Virginia State College where Mrs.. Johns was employed as a professor of music. At that time, Reverend Johns divided his schedule between his church in Alabama, his farm in Prince Edward County, and the family residence in Petersburg. I accepted the invitation and spent the night with the Johns family.

The next morning I was awakened by Dr. Johns who was standing in the doorway to my bedroom. His greeting to me was "When so and so (I can't remember the name) made his first million dollars, his first act was to hire a man to wake him up each morning an hour before he had to get up. That way he could enjoy the luxury of lying in bed an extra hour each morning. Now, I've said all that to tell you that you have one more hour to lie there. I want you to go to church with me today."

I tried to squirm out of it, protesting that I didn't have the proper clothes, I needed to get back to the farm, etc., but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He insisted that I go. Reluctantly, I accompanied him and Vernon Jr. to church where Dr. Johns' topic was "What to Do With Life."


After Church Bull Session

We returned to his house after church and seated ourselves on the front porch. He opened the conversation with,"You know I value your input (Oh! He certainly knew how to make a fellow feel good!). What did you think of my sermon?" I replied that I hardly felt qualified to judge the work of so polished an orator. I thought the sermon timely and appropriate, well constructed and logical in its conclusions. "Well," said Dr. Johns, "what you heard this morning is my commencement address at Atlanta University tomorrow night. And that, by the way, is a signal honor in that I am the only speaker in the history of that school who has been invited back a second time to give the commencement address." From that point, as usual, our conversation ranged over many topics, but what I remember best were those topics that gave insights into the character and thinking of this brilliant, unorthodox personality.


The Montgomery Improvement Association

Our conversation turned to the Montgomery Improvement Association stemming from the civil rights struggle with Martin Luther King's involvement in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. John's surprising reaction to the association was "I wouldn't give a rap for them either."

"Hey," I responded. "How could that be? I know you were in Montgomery and that you worked with the MIA. As a matter of fact, I have heard that you had a hand in the formation of that organization. How can you disown the group with which you have had such intimate association?"

"Easily enough, " he replied. "You see, during that bus boycott, more than a half million dollars was poured into that situation by sympathetic individuals and organizations across the country. Half a million dollars that we know of, that is, and probably more that we don't know of. That money has never been properly accounted for. How it was used is known only to a few individuals who have not been required to account for its ‘disposal.'"

I need to make it clear that Dr. Johns did not directly accuse anyone of misappropriating or misusing the money. His objection concerned the slip-shod, haphazard manner in which the money was handled. He believed that such casual methods could only invite dishonesty.

Taylor Branch's massive study of the Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters, gives considerable weight to the suspicions of Dr. Johns: ". . . MIA secretary Uriah J. Fields held a press conference in Montgomery to charge that the boycott leadership was riddled with corruption. It involved thousands of dollars in misappropriated funds, he said, and leaders who had become ‘too egotistical and interested in perpetuating themselves.'

"Thousands of dollars has in fact been misappropriated out of the MIA treasury, as car-pool drivers and assorted hustlers were charging the MIA for oceans of gasoline and truckloads of imaginary spare tires."

What Dr. Johns had told me those long years ago on the front porch of his Petersburg home was borne out and substantiated by the investigations and conclusions of writer Taylor Branch.


The Humor of Dr. Johns

Nothing in either of the two films about Dr. Johns touched on one of the most important facets of his personality that made him a most engaging and entertaining companion. Not only was he a gifted raconteur, but he had a seemingly inexhaustible store of anecdotes, quips, humorous insights, and jokes.

Dr. Johns had so many experiences, so wide a range of unusual encounters that he related with such animation and such irresistibly infectious humor that hours spent in his company were magically transformed into seconds. He enjoyed humor and laughter even when he was the target of the joke. This is borne out in an anecdote he shared with me.

He had once attended a church meeting in rural Alabama and, after the service, dinner was served on the grounds. As he ate his dinner, he noticed an old woman standing nearby who kept staring at him. After dinner, he moved about the church yard, but no matter where he moved, the old lady continued to stare. Finally, screwing up her courage, the woman approached him. "Ain't you a preacher?" she asked. "Why, yes ma'am, I am," he replied, "but how could you tell?" "Well," she replied " I could tell you wasn't normal." How he laughed at this description of himself.


A Commencement Address

One June day, Dr. Johns stopped by my house and asked if I would drive him over to Lynchburg where he was to deliver the commencement address that evening at Virginia Seminary. Always delighted to get away from the farm, I, of course, accepted. He left saying that he would be back later that evening.

When he returned, I was surprised to see him still dressed in the same worn overalls and run down shoes that he wore when he interrupted his chores to come to my house the first time. Noticing my questioning glance, he said, pointing to a brown paper bag that he was carrying: "I've got my suit in my luggage here. When we get to town, I'm going to bathe and dress at a friend's house." I was greatly relieved because he certainly didn't look like someone about to deliver a commencement address. He looked for all the world just like what in his heart he was: a farmer.

When we got to town, he directed me to the home of Anne Spencer, a noted poet. Evidently she expected him, for she invited him in and showed him to the bathroom where he bathed and dressed while I waited out in the garden. When he finished, we drove to the college where he delivered his message.

On the way back to the farm, we rode along chatting casually about this and that. At one point in the conversation, he said suddenly "You know, I just thought of something." "What's that?" I asked. He answered, "I'll bet you that in the history of American education, this was the first graduating class that was ever addressed by a speaker who didn't have any underwear on." He had forgotten to pack underwear in his "luggage."


A Critic

Possessor of a rapier keen wit, a caustic tongue, and an enormous talent for devastating repartee, Dr. Johns sometimes utilized these assets with stunning effect. A fellow told me that one Sunday he had driven Dr. Johns to a church where he was to be the guest speaker. After the services, as they were making their way to the car, they were accosted by one of the male members of the church who said, "Dr. Johns. I certainly didn't think much of your sermon this morning. In fact, I thought it was a pretty poor excuse for a sermon. I certainly expected better of you!"

Dr. Johns merely nodded and continued toward the car. The driver, shocked at the man's remarks and by Johns' uncharacteristic passive acceptance, asked, "Dr. Johns. Didn't you hear what that man said? How could you let him insult you like that?"

The answer was pure classic Vernon Johns at his vitriolic best. He snapped: "What difference does the verdict make when you have a jackass for a jury?"

Dr. Johns and the Hired Man or Fun with a Tape Recorder

Years ago, when I lived in the country, I had a neighbor, Russell who was a very interesting, and in some ways, a very entertaining person. Russell was a good-hearted, well-meaning fellow, but he wasn't very bright. His bumpkinesque behavior and beliefs made him a trial to deal with except in small doses.

Russell lived alone across the road from me in a tiny cottage and he did all his cooking, laundry and other household chores for himself. (He was married but his wife lived and worked in West Virginia and came home only rarely.) He worked around at different farms in the community. With the small, uncertain income he was able to earn as a handyman and farm laborer, I know that he didn't eat steak very often. Beans seemed to be the mainstay of his diet.

And I know he was somewhat worried about eating so much of this very basic, inexpensive food, because he asked me one day if it was true that if you ate too many beans they would sprout inside of your stomach with fatal results. He was obviously quite concerned about this possibility and he wanted to know if I knew if there were any warning signs to alert him that he had reached his limit. I attempted to assure him that there was no danger, but I don't believe I convinced him.

At one point during my years on the farm, I bought a tape recorder; the old reel-to-reel kind. This was back during the fifties and tape recorders were rare and probably unheard of in that rural community. One day an older woman accompanied by several grandchildren came to see me about something. While she was there, I demonstrated the tape recorder. It frightened her to death! She exclaimed, "That thing catch your voice! Come on children, we're going home! Don't let that thing catch your voice!"

One day, shortly after, I looked up to see Russell coming up my driveway. I quickly took the tape recorder and hid it behind the sofa. When Russell came in and took a seat, I reached over and turned the recorder on so as to record our conversation. We talked for awhile about neighborhood news and then I steered the conversation around to ask him: "Russell, I understand you were working for Dr. Johns and he got angry about something you did and he fired you. What about that?"

At the very mention of Dr. Johns' name, Russell jumped up and started cussing. He cussed, ranted, and swore for a good three minutes. Finally, when he calmed down, he took his seat once again. Meanwhile, I reached over behind the sofa and turned the reel back and then put the recorder in the "play" mode. Russell began to listen and as he listened his eyes grew large as saucers. Finally, he jumped up and exclaimed, "See there! I told you that S.O.B. wasn't no good! That man on the radio said the same thing I just said about him!"


A Pious Neighbor

Dr. Johns told the following story. When I was a little boy, we lived near a neighbor who described himself as a staunch Christian, a believer who lived according to the Scriptures, who was, by his own account, truly a devout Christian guided in all that he did by his belief and his unwavering, unquestioning devotion to the Bible. "I just oozes religion," he often declared, "and I breeds truth and righteousness wherever I go."

Well, his Christianity came into question one winter just about hog-killing time. My father killed two hogs yielding four hams that we hung in the smoke-house to be cured. A few days later, my father went into the shed and found that he had only three hams. One had unaccountably disappeared. He went over to his neighbors' smoke house and looked in and there were three hams hanging, waiting to be cured.

My father then went to the neighbor's house and asked: "‘Brother T,'" how is it that I killed two hogs and yet I have only three hams, and you killed one hog, yet you have three hams too? How do you explain that?"

"The Lord move in mysterious ways and folks don't ‘posed to meddle in the Lord's business," responded the pious neighbor.

I don't remember exactly how the matter was settled, but I seem to recall that Johns was finally able to persuade the neighbor that his theology was in error, and along with the threat to call the sheriff to adjudicate the matter, Johns was able to retrieve his ham.


The Stunning Brilliance of Dr. Johns

I think that I have never in my lifetime encountered Dr. Johns' equal in terms of intelligence. He was, far and away, the most brilliant, the most unorthodox, and the most original thinker I have ever met. In addition to a formidable intellect, Johns was gifted with total recall -- a photographic memory. Proof of his mental prowess is the fact that he graduated first in his class at Oberlin, a class standing that listed Robert Hutchins, later president of the University of Chicago, as second in rank. The two men had a fist fight at one point during their college years, but later became close friends. I have seen and read correspondence between them.

Now a photographic memory, although uncommon, occurs often enough that it cannot be considered a truly rare phenomenon. But Johns possessed in addition the ability to reach into that magnificent computer-like memory bank and retrieve instantly any material that he had absorbed.

People used to say of him that if the Bible were ever lost, Vernon Johns could reconstruct it from memory. This is probably overstating the case, but it is easy enough to understand why so many believed him capable of such a feat. Johns never used a manuscript when speaking, yet his speeches and sermons followed an unerringly logical development. He never opened a Bible when preaching, yet he could quote lengthy passages of scripture flawlessly and it was said that he had committed to memory in their entirety some of the books of the Bible.


The Ten Best Sermons of the Year

I mentioned to Dr. Johns one day that I had heard that Dr. John M. Ellison, president of Virginia Union College (now University) in Richmond, Virginia (my Alma Mater) had a sermon published in a collection called "The Ten Best Sermons of the Year." Dr. Johns complimented Dr. Ellison's effort and said that it was indeed an honor to have a sermon included in the prestigious publication. Then he asked, "Do you know who was the first Negro to have a sermon published in that collection?" "No, I have no idea. Who was it?" "I was," he responded. "Let me tell you how that came about. One year when I had read the latest in the series, I wrote to the publishers of the collection telling them that since catholicity was the aim, they might consider including sermons from some black theologians. Negroes in this country, I explained, had developed their own concepts of theology and religion which in many ways differed from those of white theologians and, therefore, theology seen from a black perspective would offer an interesting new view of familiar subjects.

"The publishers wrote me in return, enthusiastically agreeing to publish sermons that met their requirements and criteria. Would I submit several from which they could make a selection? I immediately contacted three of the most prominent black theologians in the nation, explaining the situation and asking them to submit a sermon to the publishers. They did so, and, for one reason or another, all three sermons were rejected.

"I received another communication from the publishers asking me to submit other sermons, but, they reminded me, there was a deadline to meet which allowed little time to go through the process again. I was on a train when I read this latest communication and, realizing how little time I had, I wrote my sermon on the back of the publishers' letter and submitted that." (I'm sure he had the sermon transcribed before he submitted it!)

"My sermon was selected. Thus, I became the first black to have a sermon published in ‘The Ten Best Sermons of the Year." (The name of the sermon was "Transfigured Moments.")


The Keen Insight of Dr. Johns

I happened to mention half-facetiously to Rev. Johns one day that my college graduating class looked like anything but a class that had finished college; that we looked like a bunch of truck drivers or farmers; that we were a pretty ordinary looking bunch of people.

"Well, that's good" was his surprising response. "It means that education is becoming available to the masses of black folk. In the past only a fortunate few, usually the children of parents who had money, were lucky enough to go to college. I'm glad that's beginning to change." This observation gave me a new respect for the dimensions and scope of my friend's insights and understanding.


Lady Wonder

There was a horse named Lady Wonder that lived on a farm near Petersburg. This horse seemed to have the uncanny ability to read people's minds. The woman who owned Lady Wonder explained that she had observed that the horse had the amazing ability to read her mind some years before when she found that whenever she thought of feeding the horse she would find the horse coming across the pasture over to the fence where its trough was located.

She said that she tested the horse again and again for this most curious and peculiar phenomenon and always with the same results. She had only to think of feeding her horse and invariably the horse would come to the trough from wherever she had been in the pasture.

Experimenting further, the woman and her husband devised a contraption by which they could communicate with the horse. They built a device which consisted of a "keyboard" which the horse would press with his muzzle to activate the letters of the alphabet so as to spell out simple words and phrases. By this means, the horse was able to answer questions, which it did with such success that the owners began to advertise the horse's gifts, making them available to anyone willing to pay a small fee. The horse became a local curiosity and many people visited the farm to have their thoughts "read" by the horse.

What brought the horse to national prominence occurred when a couple from Massachusetts traveling south to Florida stopped in to visit this unusual animal, which by that time had received a good bit of publicity. This couple asked the horse a number of questions that she answered correctly (using the contraption described above). The couple, intrigued and puzzled, decided to ask a question which they felt the horse could not possibly answer correctly. They asked where was the little boy who had disappeared from their home town a couple of weeks before and whose whereabouts had stumped the authorities in the town where they lived. The horse's answer was "Search the quarry." The couple dismissed the horse's reply because they knew that the quarry had already been thoroughly searched.

They left to continue their trip, but they called home and told someone there about their experience with the horse and about their question and the horse's answer. Whoever they called got in touch with the authorities with the result that the quarry again was searched. This time, the body of the child was found in the quarry (he had drowned), just as the horse had foretold. Of course, this development brought a great deal more publicity to the horse and all sorts of theories and explanations were offered, but no one seemed able to come up with an explanation that was really satisfactory.

After reading about Lady Wonder in two different publications, I asked Dr. Johns if he had read about the horse. "Oh, yes," was his reply. "I know about Lady Wonder. As a matter of fact, I have visited and had a most unusual experience with her." Of course, I was all ears and I asked him to tell me about his experience.

He told me that Rev. H, a prominent, well-known preacher who was a native of Charlottesville, but who at that time lived and pastored a church in California, had called him and asked him to meet him at the airport in Richmond. He was returning to Virginia for a series of lectures and sermons at churches in the Richmond-Petersburg area. Dr. Johns met the visitor and they proceeded to the Johns' home in Petersburg.

As they neared the farm where Lady Wonder lived, Dr. Johns told his guest about the horse and its puzzling ability. Rev. H was fascinated and of course skeptical and reluctant to believe. So the two men made an unscheduled stop to see for themselves. They asked a number of questions which the horse answered correctly. Dr. H then asked the owner to leave, thinking that she was in some unobtrusive manner cuing the horse's answers. The owner stepped outside the barn leaving the two men to proceed with their questioning. The men continued with the same baffling results as before the owner left.

By this time, Dr. H had become increasingly annoyed and miffed and perhaps a little angry that he could not detect the means by which the horse was able to answer their questions. Finally, turning to Johns, Rev. H asked him to leave also, saying "I have a question for which no living person besides myself has the answer. I want to see how this animal will treat my question."

Johns obliged his guest and stepped outside. He waited a few minutes until his friend appeared. Rev. H was as white as a sheet when he came out, obviously a shaken, troubled man. The two men got into the car and continued to Petersburg. For the rest of the journey, Rev. H was a subdued, chastened man, not speaking until they pulled up in front of Johns' house. The shaken man of God turned to Johns and said "The horse knew the answer."

To save my neck, I can't think why I didn't ask Dr. Johns what he thought of the incident, how he would explain the horse's uncanny, eerie ability. Somehow I didn't ask. It seemed to me that Dr. Johns simply accepted the fact that the horse was gifted in some inexplicable way.

He did say to me somewhat confidentially that he believed that the reverend's question had to do with his paternity. He believed that Rev. H was illegitimate, being the result of a liaison between his mother and a white man. I asked a friend, Rev. William Banks of Philadelphia, a scholarly, very devout man, who explained the incident as an example of possession. He said that the Bible tells of humans who were possessed and that the Bible makes it clear that animals can also become afflicted with this condition. I don't know about that, but it was an interesting tale that I have remembered all these years.


Vernon Johns and Poetry

Dr. Johns had a great love of poetry that he could quote by the hour (that fantastic memory again!). Several individuals have told of traveling with him in his automobile and how on these trips he would gauge how far they had traveled by the number of poems he could quote, either aloud or mentally, between stops.

I remember once when I was riding in his automobile with him, he recited a piece of poetry several verses in length. Upon finishing, he turned to me and said "I learned that poem when I was in the second grade."


A Lesson Learned in a Schoolyard

Johns became aware of his gifts at an early age. He told me that when he was very young, he used to play in the schoolyard of a white elementary school near his home. In warm weather, when the schoolhouse windows were open, he could hear the lessons being taught inside. He was surprised to hear children much older and larger than he struggling with lesson he had long since mastered. "That's when I learned that white folk didn't have all the brains," he laughed.

By the time he had matured, Johns was fully aware that he was blessed with superior skills. As an orator, he had few peers, and on occasion, he would demonstrate that he was conscious of and confident in his abilities.


A Speech in Ohio

Dr. Johns told me once that he had been invited to speak at a program in Ohio at which the main speaker was Senator Robert Taft. When he arrived at the auditorium where the program was scheduled to take place, he joined a number of people assembled backstage. He stood for a while until finally a woman approached him and asked, "Are you on the program or are you a part of the audience?" Johns informed her that he had been invited to speak on the program. The woman consulted her notes, found his name, and then asked, "In what order would you like to be presented?" After considering a moment, Johns replied, "Oh, just put me wherever you want the best speech."

When the program was over, Senator Taft came over to Johns, shook his hand and said, "The program director told me what you said about having the best speech and I want to tell you that you were right. Without question you had the best speech!"


Vernon Johns, Fearless and Courageous Pioneer

Dr. Johns' mother, Mrs. Sallie Johns, used to say of her son that she fully expected to hear that he had been found murdered somewhere. There was good reason for such pessimism. At one time, there was talk among some of the whites of the neighborhood about "getting him." They were incensed by something that he had done. Perhaps he had been guilty of acting "uppity," or perhaps he had made some derogatory remark about some of his white neighbors. (He was never one to bite his tongue). At that time, given the mind-set of the neighborhood whites, "getting" him might mean anything from a severe beating to a lynching, with the party who was to be "gotten" as the guest of honor.

Some of this talk was overhead by a relative of Johns who quickly spread the word in the black community. Some were fearful, but, others who knew Johns, were untroubled. Their thinking was that they might set out to "get" Johns, but unless they were very lucky, the "getter" would find themselves "gotten." They knew that Johns would not submit without giving as good as he got.


Encounter with the Mayor

Johns was no respecter of persons. If you offended him, he was going to let you know about it right then and in no uncertain terms, regardless of the consequences.

He told me that one day as he was about to enter the Farmville post office, a white man approached him, asking "Say, do you know that nigger so and so?" Hardly believing his ears, Johns responded, "What did you say?" The man repeated his question and Johns said: "I cussed him. I cussed him completely. Up one side and down the other. I instructed him about his miserable gutter origins, about the low lifestyle and revolting habits of the misbegotten clan that whelped him. I cussed him completely through his entire family tree, from his earliest ancestors through future, unborn generations. I cussed him ‘til leaves trembled on the trees and the sun shook in the heavens."

He learned later that the cussee was the mayor of Farmville. I am certain that had he known at the time of the incident, it would have made not a particle of difference.


Johns vs. Carter Glass

Some of the older black residents of Lynchburg remember that it was Dr. Johns who persuaded Senator Carter Glass, editor of the "Daily Advance," the local daily paper, to use the prefixes "Mr., Miss, and Mrs." in news stories that concerned black people. Until then, the custom had been to refer to blacks by name only, without the courtesy of a prefix.

The enormity of this small concession, that is, to give black people the courtesy of a prefix in front of their names, can be better appreciated when we consider that Senator Carter Glass was an unabashed racist, a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist, and a die-hard defender of Southern customs, as the following makes abundantly clear.

Taking the floor of the Virginia Convention in 1900, Carter Glass said: "We are here to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations to the federal constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate."

I am indebted to Mr. Olivet Thaxton, a member of Court Street Baptist Church when Vernon Johns was its pastor, for the following insights into the relationship between Dr. Johns and Carter Glass. One Sunday, Dr. Johns preached a most unusual sermon entitled "Almighty God, Senator Glass, and Negroes." The sermon was a scathing denunciation of the newspaper's refusal to accord the courtesy of a title to the names of Negroes, and was only the latest round in the battle between the newspaper and Dr. Johns, which had begun shortly after Johns came to Lynchburg as president of Virginia Seminary, some months before.

A short time later, Dr. Johns went to see Senator Glass at his office at the newspaper, once again to press his case for using the proper prefixes when referring to black people in the newspaper. After much difficulty caused by underlings who wanted Johns to state his business (I think that we can assume that the Senator had few visitors of color), Johns was finally bidden to enter Glass's office.

The Senator's first words to his visitor were , "Johns, you're a fool!" Johns replied, "No, I'm not a fool and you know that I am not. I am here to tell you why you should extend to black people the courtesy of a title in your newspaper." The two men wrangled and argued until, exasperated, Glass demanded that Johns leave his office.

Some weeks later, Thaxton, who was traveling south by train, happened to meet Dr. Johns at the station in Danville. During the ensuing conversation, Dr. Johns showed Thaxton a telegram he had received from Senator Glass. The telegram read: "You think that I hate Negroes. I have had a Negro man who has worked for me for forty years. Carter Glass." That was the message in its entirety.

Johns chuckled and said, "I must have shaken up that old rascal. He knows he's on his way to Hell and I guess he thinks he'd better start mending fences before he goes."

Senator Glass not only conceded and changed the policy regarding the names of Negroes, he also gave a milk cow to Virginia Seminary. What Dr. Johns accomplished in this situation was nothing short of a miracle.


Incident in a Farmville Courtroom

Less well known is an incident that took place in a Farmville court room. Mrs. Cula Berryman, who lived in the Johns home while she attended high school, was a witness to the event and she tells us Mrs. Johns had been involved in an automobile accident and was subsequently summoned to court to testify.

Mrs. Johns, accompanied by her husband, went to court on the appointed day. All was going well until the lawyer questioning Mrs. Johns referred to her by her given name "Altona." Dr. Johns thundered from his seat among the spectators: "Don't you call my wife Altona." A few minutes later the lawyer again called Mrs. Johns "Altona." This time, Dr. Johns jumped up and, brandishing a chair, advanced on the lawyer saying "I told you not to call my wife Altona and if you call her that again, I'll break your neck!"

As you can imagine, pandemonium reigned in the court room until the judge and the bailiff were able to restore calm. The questioning continued, but a female lawyer stepped in and replaced her male colleague. Through the remainder of the trail, she was the soul of circumspection, remembering always to refer to Mrs. Johns by her proper title.

Whatever else Dr. Johns was, he was not a liar. He would undoubtedly have done exactly what he promised and gone happily to jail. Frankly, in light of the poor race relations in that place in that time, it is surprising that the judge did not hold Dr. Johns in contempt of court and fine him or remand him to jail.


A Trip to Montgomery

You may recall that in "The Vernon Johns Story" the family of Dr. Johns left him in Montgomery. The family was on the way to Petersburg, Virginia where Mrs. Johns had taken a job at Virginia State College. Some months later, Dr. Johns stopped by my house to ask if I would drive my truck to Montgomery to pick up his wife's grand piano and deliver it to her in Petersburg. I agreed to do it, but there was a problem. I had a truck, but I did not have a driver's license. Dr. Johns, equal to the occasion, simply drove me to Lynchburg where I took and passed the license test.

So now we were ready to go, right? No, wrong! I was scared to death to travel in the Deep South with someone as volatile and unpredictable as Dr. Johns. By this time, I knew him well enough to feel that, given such a temperament as he possessed, any situation could develop into a life threatening predicament. But I need not have feared. We never made the trip, although for the life of me I can't remember why. I can only remember how relieved I was that I did not have to go.


About Dying

I have often heard Dr. Johns say "We must not fear dying. There's a lot of things worse than dying and one of them is being alive when you should be dead!" I wonder if Dr. Johns did not expect to die, probably at the hands of Southern whites. In his career, over a span of several decades, his travels took him frequently into places in the Deep South where it was dangerous for a black man to speak out about the injustices done to the blacks throughout the South. Yet Dr. Johns could be counted on to speak out and more than speak out, to defy the customs of the place. (The sandwich incident in "The Vernon Johns Story" is a case in point.)

But Johns was not completely foolhardy. He carried a loaded double-barreled shotgun with him whenever he drove. If you saw him in the white Mercury that he used to drive, you could rest assured that he was ready for action. I have no doubt that he planned to sell his life dearly, if the situation called for it.


Incident in a Bus Station

Dr. Johns told me once that he was traveling by bus somewhere in the Deep South and when the bus pulled into the terminal of a small town, he looked into the dismal, dirty, dining and waiting room for "Colored." He was so angered and distressed by the conditions of the accommodations for the "coloreds", which stood in stark contrast to the immaculate, inviting, attractive accommodations for whites, that he went over to the driver of the bus and invited him to make the comparison with the question: "Isn't separate but equal the damndest lie ever spawned in Hell?" The driver passed the buck, saying that he was not responsible -- that he only drove the bus.

Johns then took the same question to the manager of the terminal, who, flustered and obviously taken aback that a black man had the nerve to ask such questions, weaseled out with a flimsy excuse, and quickly took his leave.

It took a great deal of courage to do what Johns did in this situation. Get the picture; a small Deep Southern town, late at night and in an area where black folks "had no rights that a white man was bound to respect." Who can say what terrible things might have happened? Remember that in those times and in that place, black folks were expected to submit passively to whatever inequities were imposed on them by the majority race and to utter protest was to invite swift, brutal retribution.

I marvel that Dr. Johns escaped unscathed the numerous confrontations he brought on. When I asked him how he managed to survive this particular situation, he gave a not really satisfactory explanation: "You can say anything you want to say to people. It's the way that you say it."


A Train Station Incident

Dr. Johns told me of an incident that occurred in a train station in a large city. He had traveled by train to that city where he was scheduled to lecture at one of the city's institutions of higher learning. He found out his destination was a great distance from the station and fearing that he did not have enough money for cab fare to the college, he approached a group of well-dressed black men standing nearby. Identifying himself and describing his predicament, he asked if they would lend him the price of the cab ride to the school. He offered to leave his name and address and promised to return the loan in a few days.

The men hemmed and hawed. They asked a number of questions that demonstrated their suspicions and mistrust. Johns quickly became disgusted and told them to "forget it" and walked away.

He then approached a white woman, again identifying himself and describing his predicament. The woman listened sympathetically and said, "Why, certainly. I'll be glad to help." Opening her purse, she gave him a little more than he had asked for and he was able to continue his journey.

As he passed the group of men, the same men who had been so hesitant and who had witnessed the exchange between Johns and the woman, one of the men said, "Er, ah , Dr. Johns, we . . ." Johns interrupted, "Er, ah, damn!" and continued on his way.

As he ended his tale, he laughed and said, "Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on those fellows. Maybe they have been conned so often that they weren't about to take a chance on me. Still, it did seem odd to find a white woman so gracious and generous and willing to trust me, a perfect stranger, when my own wouldn't."


Vernon Johns, a Kind, Compassionate Person

I can never forget Dr. Johns' numerous kindnesses to me. I remember one particular occasion that underscores his thoughtfulness and generosity. One Christmas Eve I was at the farm expecting to spend my Christmas there. Dr. Johns stopped by and he seemed surprised to find me. He asked why I hadn't gone home to Philadelphia to spend the holiday with my family. I gave some flimsy excuse. (The truth of the matter was that I was broke and did not have the fare.)

Johns invited me to go with him to his home in Petersburg saying "My kids will be home and you can have dinner with us. We'd be glad to have you." He didn't have to twist my arm. The prospect of Christmas alone at the farm wasn't really very appealing, so I readily accepted. I went with him to Petersburg and enjoyed a good dinner and the company of his family and had at least as good a time as I would have had at my own home.

This simple act of kindness to me was merely one of many such generous, thoughtful favors he did for me in the years that I was in contact with him and it was perfectly in keeping with his great humanitarian spirit and his love and compassion for all of the human family. His love and concern for humanity worldwide may be illustrated by the following.

Cupping his hands, he said to me on one occasion, "As much rice as you can hold in your two hands is the daily diet of millions of people in the world. Two handfuls of rice and nothing else. In this country we have been blessed with a superabundance of rich natural resources. Our granaries are bursting with bountiful harvests; the product of millions of acres of rich farmland. The endless variety of foods in our supermarkets makes us the envy of the world and, although there is poverty and even hunger in this land, it does not begin to approach conditions in other countries. We don't thank God enough for the bounty He has placed at our disposal."

He spoke often of the inequities in the distribution of the world's wealth. He deplored the fact that millions live in abject poverty so that a few might live in what he described as "obscene" luxury. But when I reminded him that such talk smacked of Communism, he made it very clear that he held no brief for a political philosophy that denied God.

Dr. Johns said that "Communism in theory more nearly resembles Christian doctrine than does democracy in that the Communists' credo ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,' is closer in spirit to the teachings of Jesus than is the democratic belief that the strong have the right to exploit the riches of the earth without restraint or regulation (and usually at the expense of the weak and defenseless). But no theory that is not based in a belief in God will ever be truly successful."


Incident in a West Virginia Hotel

Dr. John's all-encompassing humanitarianism sometimes revealed itself in situations involving single individuals. "At one time," he told me, "I was staying at a hotel in West Virginia. One day, as I left my room to go to dinner, I noticed a woman standing in the hallway. When I returned to my room a couple of hours later, the woman was still standing by the door of one of the rooms. Sensing that something was wrong, I approached her and said, ‘You've been standing here for a long time. You look troubled. Is something wrong?'"

The woman made it clear that she did not want to talk. She gave every indication that she was indeed troubled, but she wanted to be left alone. Still, Johns persisted. He identified himself as a preacher and assured her that he was not merely prying, but was genuinely interested in lending whatever help he could.

Finally, the woman, touched no doubt by Johns' sincerity and obvious concern, relented and said: "My husband is in that room with another woman and when he opens that door, I'm going to kill him." As she spoke, she held her bag in such a way as to indicate that it contained a weapon.

Johns then used his considerable powers of persuasion to reason with her, appealing to her better nature. So persuasive was he, that she, after a while, opened her bag, gave him the pistol she was carrying, and left the hotel. Thus, one life, maybe two, were saved by the timely intervention of Dr. Johns.

I imagine that the couple in the room never knew how close to death they were on that day. Nor did they ever know that their lives had been saved by a stranger.


Vernon Johns and Black Business

Although he was concerned for all the world's people, he had a special interest in the welfare and well being of his own. He extolled the virtues of simple living, thrift, and sobriety. He encouraged black involvement in business. He urged a strong bonding among black people, encouraging a pooling of resources and a cooperation and support of black business by black people.

Dr. Johns believed (and correctly too) that the great Civil Rights struggle was doomed to fall far short of its goals unless it included a dynamic emphasis on black involvement in and ownership of businesses, particularly those that provide the basic necessities. He constantly preached black control of black dollars.

His unvarying emphatic promotion of this theme, as well as his insistence on peddling food products on the streets, grated harshly on the sensitivities of some of his parishioners. They felt that it was "undignified and unseemly" for their pastor to "demean" himself (and by extension, them) by hawking vegetables on the streets of their town.

Dr. Johns turned a deaf ear to the grumbling protests of his congregation. He continued to sell watermelons, hams, tomatoes, cabbages, and other products of the farm and a variety of other necessities. One gets the feeling that he was at least as much motivated by the desire to demonstrate that involvement in business was honorable, rewarding, and profitable as he was by the prospect of enriching himself.


Farm and City Enterprises

Dr. Johns sought to encourage a close cooperation between the producers, (i.e. the farmers) and the retailers and consumers. To this end, he and several ministers, and others interested in the development and expansion of black business formed a co-operative under the name "Farm and City Enterprises." The purpose of this enterprise was to bring the products of the farm to the consumer at the most economical prices by eliminating, wherever possible, the "middlemen" whose involvement added so greatly to the cost.

Johns saw clearly that enormous profits could be generated if black farmers and producers could corral a portion of the dollars spent by black consumers in their purchases of the basic food needs. Furthermore, if a strong coalition between consumers and suppliers could be built, then suppliers could begin to expand their offerings as demand dictated. This in turn would encourage greater participation in the market place by other black entrepreneurs, producers of products unrelated to the farm.

Of course, none of this was new. Indeed, ever since freedom from slavery, far-seeing leaders had echoed again and again over the decades the idea that black progress depended to a great extent on black control of black dollars.

I wish that I could record that "Farm and City Enterprises" was a successful venture, but I just do not know. By the time the project had gotten off the ground, I had left the county and thus lost my contact with the principal figures involved. I heard rumors of court actions, lawsuits, countersuits, and other legal wrangling that spelled finis to the enterprise. I don't have any first-hand information as to whom to blame, but I believe that the idea was sound and had great potential. What a pity it did not meet the success it deserved!


Vernon Johns and the Civil War

Dr. Johns maintained that "Black people should know about the Civil War, because, in the final analysis, black people were the only beneficiaries of that cataclysmic blood letting. The North managed to preserve the Union, but at a frightful cost in lives, property, money, and materials of war. The South lost almost everything."

The war's end found the South prostrate, its economy shattered, its labor force dispersed, its rich farmland ravaged and despoiled, the flower of its young manhood moldering in the crude burial grounds of a thousand battlefields. The morale of the defeated and demoralized Southern people was at its lowest ebb. Truly, the Southland, after April 9, 1865, was a desolate, cheerless wasteland. If anything positive could be said to have come out of that titanic struggle, it would have to be that black people received their freedom with the capitulation of the Confederate army at Appomattox.

Dr. Johns had a broad and comprehensive knowledge of the Civil War. He had studied the writings of the important personalities of that period. He knew the maps and the topography of the great battlefields and could explain and illustrate, with the expertise that comes with long familiarity, the strategies and the movements of the armies. He was knowledgeable about the prominent personalities of that period. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, their quirks and idiosyncrasies and habits of thought. He wrote a brief treatise on the Civil War entitled "A Religious History of the Civil War." The following is a selection from that history.

"Ulysses S. Grant was thirty-nine years old when the Civil War broke in on history bringing with it the circumstances that would transform him from a ‘ne'er do well' to a Captain fit to stand by Caesar and give command. How many mortals may have passed into the eternal shades ‘unwept, unhonored and unsung' because the appropriate circumstances never crossed their path?

"Emerson said, ‘Every man is in some way my superior.' Will the endlessly revolving years bring the opportunity somewhere for every person to reveal that in which his superiority resides, raising dishonored human failures from their place at the bottom of the pile to some higher posture?"

For me, the above passage approaches the poetic in terms of the beauty of the language employed, the logic involved, and the magnificence of the thought it contains. As I listened to Dr. Johns, I found myself swept up in the romance of the Civil War. I remember very clearly the first book he loaned me on the subject, Lloyd Lewis' Sherman: Fighting Prophet. As a result of Dr. Johns' enthusiasm and his willingness to instruct me, I quickly became an eager convert and over the intervening years have devoted considerable study to that period in American history.


About Taking a Job

On more than one occasion Dr. Johns told me: "Always take a job you are ready to quit. If you find the job will demean you, if the job requires you to compromise principle, or if the job erodes your self-respect, then clearly you must leave that job, no matter how badly you need to work."

I have often thought of this advice and especially when I hear of someone who for principle has left a job that seemed to be desirable. The odd thing is that, in most cases that I know of, the person who quit for principle or because he felt his self-respect was threatened eventually fared better than if he had stayed. I don't have a clear idea of why this is true, but my observations lead me to the conclusion that, just as Dr. Johns said, it is better to leave than to stay in a bad job.

Maybe it's because the person, having cut himself off from the "security" of a job, now is forced to find some other means by which to maintain himself. Having quit, he is now truly motivated. Sometimes he is forced to look within himself and, in so doing, find unexpected strengths and capabilities he didn't know he possessed. For example, a fellow from Roanoke who was in college with me found himself in a federal employee job that he detested, working under a superior that he also detested. One day he blew up. He quit and withdrew his retirement, which, along with his savings and the mortgage on his home, added up to enough money for him to purchase a McDonald's franchise. When I last saw him, he owned three McDonald's restaurants in the Baltimore area and was in the process of negotiating for a fourth. Friends tell me that he is a millionaire.

Maybe this was an exceptional case, but, even so, I believe that Dr. Johns' advice has great merit, for I know others who have left a "desirable" job, sometimes against the advice of friends and family, and striking out on their own, have enjoyed admirable success.


About Mrs. Johns

Mrs. Altona Trent Johns, wife of Vernon Johns, was quite an impressive woman in her own right. A cultured, refined, well educated member of a well-known and highly respected family, she was an accomplished pianist and author of two highly acclaimed books of children's music, "Play Songs of the Deep South" and "Finger Fun."

Mrs. Johns possessed a grace and charm that endeared her to all who met her. Even those who were not entirely sold on her husband readily conceded that Mrs. Johns was in every sense a truly ladylike, good woman. Some even said, "Humph! She's too good for that husband she's got!" But maybe Dr. Johns shared that opinion.

"I must say," Dr. Johns mused aloud one day as we drove somewhere, "my wife is an unusually good woman." "Well," I replied, "Everyone knows that. But why do you bring that up at this time?" "I was just thinking," was the reply. "Any woman who can put up with a hellion like me has to be an especially good person."


About Being Drunk

Dr. Johns liked an occasional beer and he didn't seem to care who knew it. I had been with him in Reid's Cafe (at that time, the lone black owned restaurant on Main Street in Farmville) when he took a seat and bought and drank a bottle of beer. I was somewhat surprised to see him flaunting so brazenly his defiance of the prevailing sentiment among Christian people that beer drinking was a mortal sin and those who did so were doomed to perdition. (I suspect that many of those who held such opinions were themselves secret drinkers.)

On the way home from the cafe, the topic of drinking came up. In the course of the ensuing conversation, Dr. Johns told me that once when he was staying at a hotel in West Virginia, he shared his room with another man, an acquaintance of his. Dr. Johns was suffering from a terrible cold and his hacking cough kept him and his roommate awake far into the night. Finally, the roommate said, "Dr. Johns. I have a bottle of bourbon in my bag. Why not let me fix you a drink? It will probably relax you and relieve that cough so that you can go to sleep."

Johns agreed and the man poured him a full water glass of bourbon. Dr. Johns said "I drank that whole glass of whiskey straight without water or any other chaser." I wanted to know, "Well, did it help your cough?" "I don't remember" was his reply. "All I can remember is that the first half of the night, I was afraid I was going to die and the second half of the night, I was afraid that I wasn't!"


About Toothaches

"Have you ever had a toothache?" Dr. Johns asked me one day. "Oh, yes," was my reply, "and I don't ever want to have another!" "Well, I have never had one, and I have always been interested in finding out if they are as bad as people say they are. In fact, I asked my wife, who has had a toothache, would you rather have a toothache or another baby? Which is more painful?" She replied: "If I had to choose, I'd rather have another baby. As painful as having a baby is, I would prefer it to a toothache." (Mrs. Johns had six babies and at least one toothache, so that would seem to qualify her as someone who knew the difference.)

Dr. Johns continued: "Well, I still wasn't satisfied. I wanted to know first-hand what a toothache was like. But I found out. One day when I was in the dentist's chair, as he was grinding away to correct some fault, his drill touched a nerve in the tooth he was working on. In that split second, I found out all I ever want to know about toothaches. All my questions were answered in that moment, all doubts, all uncertainty, all indecision were swept away in that brief second. I believe now that a toothache is probably the worst pain a person can endure! As a matter of fact, I have heard of people so tormented by a toothache that they committed suicide. I can fully understand why they took this extreme method to find relief."


A Neighborhood Rivalry

Dr. Johns' farm lay directly across the road from the farm of a neighbor with whom there had been an intense competition that had lasted for many years. The two neighbors seemed bent on out-doing each other. Each thought his crops to be more bountiful and plentiful than his rival's. Each thought his livestock to be sleeker and better cared for than that of his neighbor's. Each believed that his soil was richer and more productive than that just across the road.

At times over the years, there were disputes and disagreements between the two neighbors. Part of Johns' land adjoined the farm of his neighbor and the boundary lines were sometimes the cause of disagreements. One day Dr. Johns came by my house and said "I want you to go to court with me this morning. My neighbor is suing me for damages. He claims that my cows got into his corn."

I replied: "Sorry, Doc, I can't go. My parents came down from Philadelphia this morning and I have to get groceries and get them squared away before I can leave." Just as he was pulling away, I called him back. "I just remembered that I have a book that I think you'll enjoy." I got the book and when I showed it to him, he remarked that he had heard of it, but had never read it. (The book was about the Civil War.) He took the book, thanked me, and drove off.

Later that evening I met a neighbor who told me that she had attended the court session that morning. She said "I wish you had been in the courtroom this morning. I wish you could have seen Rev. Johns perform. I tell you, that man is something else!"

"Why? What did he do?" I asked.

She responded: "Well, while the prosecuting attorney was presenting his case, Dr. Johns paid absolutely no attention to the case being built against him. He totally ignored the prosecutor. He was reading a book (the book I had given him) and, throughout the prosecutor's case, he seemed oblivious to what was going on. Every once in a while he would interrupt his reading to slap his thigh and laugh aloud, and exclaim ‘Haw-haw-haw, that's rich!'

"But the worst part is when he took the stand in his own defense. (I believe that he acted as his own lawyer.) He answered the prosecutor's questions in such a roundabout way that included so many funny stories, so many amusing anecdotes and hilarious references, that the entire audience, including the judge, was in stitches."

Everybody was amused. Everybody, that is, except the prosecutor who was livid. He complained to the judge, "Can't you make this defendant confine his answer to a simple yes or no?"

The judge thought for a moment, then refused, saying "If this is this man's characteristic way of expressing himself, we would be depriving him of his right to answer your questions in a manner that is natural and comfortable for him." Obviously, the judge was intrigued and fascinated with this unusual defendant. And he didn't want to deprive himself of the amusement and enjoyment that the defendant provided.

The upshot was that the case was thrown out of court, which, of course, was Dr. Johns' strategy. I think that Johns was more interested in proving that he could handle himself in any situation that his rival could devise than he was in the merits of the case. For him it was another victory in the long-running game of one-upmanship between him and his neighbor. The latter said to me with a doleful sigh one day, "The Bible teaches us that each of us must bear a cross. Dr. Johns is my cross!"


Even After Death

The rivalry did not end with Dr. Johns' death, for he had himself buried on his farm directly across from the home of his rival. He said, "Every night when he goes to bed, he will know that I am looking into his bedroom window, watching his every move. And when he rises in the morning, he will know that I am still on the job, watching, observing, and passing judgment on everything that he does."


Vernon Johns, A Man of Simple Tastes

Dr. Johns declared "Clothing enough to protect the body, shelter enough to provide a haven and protection from the elements, food enough to keep the body strong and in functioning order, and anything beyond this is luxury."

Dr. Johns not only preached this Spartan philosophy, he lived it. He cared not at all for fine clothes, beautiful homes, expensive automobiles, and the other trappings of luxury. His sermons and lectures, replete with references to the folly and futility of vanity and self-centered ambition, made it clear that he held little admiration for those who put an inordinate emphasis on the ownership of things.


On Pride and Vanity

Dr. Johns denounced pride and pomposity. He derided and ridiculed pretense and pretenders. He delighted in deflating the swollen egos of those who considered themselves a cut above the masses. Understandably, such preachments did not always sit well with his parishioners. Some resented being constantly reminded that their best was not good enough. Others, who had achieved a comfortable niche for themselves, whose place in the social order was secure and unassailable, could hardly be expected to accept the unsettling notion that all that they had accomplished was no more than was expected of them, given their opportunities.

Some saw Dr. Johns as unreasonably demanding, requiring impossibly high standards of behavior, at time abrasive, unbending and unyielding, adamant and stubborn. There were murmurs of dissatisfaction and unrest among his parishioners. But few were reckless enough to challenge him openly. The legendary temper of the man, in addition to the compelling logic of his arguments, were deterrent to all but the foolhardy.


A Big, Bright Spot: Barbara Johns

One of the bright spots in the first weeks we spent on the farm was our introduction to Barbara Johns, a young lady destined to play an important role in the history of education, not merely in Prince Edward County, but across the nation. She also played an even more important role in my brother's future, for she became his wife.

My brother first met Barbara Johns as he was driving his truck and he stopped to pick up Barbara and her brother Roddy. At first she was reluctant to get in, but Roddy insisted that they accepted the ride.

I met Barbara one day when she came by the house to ask if we would sign a petition supporting a student strike at the local high school for blacks. Barbara explained that for years black parents of high school students had petitioned the local school board for improvements in the separate but glaringly unequal schools for the county's black children. The white school was a three-story brick building of several classrooms, an auditorium, a gym, central heat and whatever else that was needed to provide the best possible facility for the white children of the county. The black high school consisted of a one-story brick building containing seven classrooms and an auditorium. The school was totally inadequate for the number of students enrolled.

After many requests from the black community, the county, (reluctantly, I'm sure) provided two unsightly "temporary" tar paper covered buildings housing six additional classrooms and a lunchroom that was almost large enough to swing a cat. These new buildings were heated by a wood stove in each classroom. Students complained because of the uneven distribution of heat -- those students near the stoves sweltered while those a short distance away froze. In addition, the stoves required constant maintenance. Part of the maintenance was the responsibility of starting the fires in the mornings. This task was assigned to one of the male teachers, who also drove one of the buses. I suppose that keeping the fires burning may even have been a student responsibility.

Here are some excerpts from a speech by Attorney General Mark Earley to the gathering of citizens at the 48th anniversary of the historic walkout at the Robert R. Moton High School, as reported in the Farmville Herald, April 28, 1999: "In a very real way, and in a way that is not an exaggeration, the civil rights movement was born on a spring day in Prince Edward County at Moton High School." Moton High School was constructed in 1939 to accommodate 167 students, but, by 1951, 450 students crammed into the building, according to Earley.

He said, "Innovative teachers held classes on this auditorium stage, in corners of the auditorium and even in a school bus." The situation was not improved by the construction of three tar-paper buildings on the grounds. Earley said the additions leaked, were sweltering in the summer and cold in the winter. "The structure on this hill looked more like a poultry farm than a center of learning." The educational tools were not much better. The biology class had one frog, textbooks were damaged or discarded books from other (white) schools and students received a carton of milk and a cinnamon bun for lunch. Early did not mention the problem of passing from a classroom in one building to another in cold or rainy weather. I suppose we'll never know how many colds were the result of this exposure.

My brother and I had seen and remarked upon the glaring disparity in the two high schools, so we enthusiastically signed Barbara's petition. We were definitely supportive of the school strike. In fact, the names of my brother and me were the two first signatures on Barbara's school petition. We had heard that the students had walked out of the high school, vowing not to return until some real, substantial improvements were made and we wholeheartedly supported them. I don't believe that either of us knew at that time to what extent Barbara was involved. But as time passed and the situation began to attract national attention, we learned that Barbara had been the chief instigator. It was she who had led the student walk-out. (Her story is told in much more detail in Taylor Branch's comprehensive study of the Civil Rights struggle, Parting the Waters, as well as in numerous other publications.)

Many years later Barbara Johns Powell set down to be interviewed for a potential film by a producer. He asked here to write the version of what happened. Recently rediscovered were the handwritten notes copied by her daughter, Terry Powell Harrison. Terry was 28 years old, but had never before heard the full story.

Barbara wrote that she had been bothered by the lack of resources for the black school she attended as compared to the white school. So she went to see her favorite teacher Inez Davenport. The teacher just responded "Why don't you do something about it?" Barbara wrote "I just slowly turned away, as I felt she had dismissed me with that reply."

She, however, could not get the injustices out of her head and she searched for an answer. "But I spent many days in my favorite hangout in the woods on my favorite stump. I sat by the creek while ‘Sadie Red' (a family horse) drank and I thought about it." She eventually turned to prayer with the plea: "God please help us. We are your children, too."

One morning she was so very busy rushing her brothers and sister Joan down the hill to school that she forgot her own lunch. She had to rush back up the hill to retrieve it. About an hour later, she was still waiting when the white school bus drove by -- half-empty -- on its way to Farmville High School. It would have to pass by her school to get to the white high school but she could not ride with them. "Right then and there I decided, indeed, something had to be done about this inequality."

The naivete of Barbara is very apparent in the following overly optimistic statement of her feelings at the time: "We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out of the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand. And we would live happily ever after." Just think of the disappointment that must have been in store for Barbara.

At night she would toss and turn trying to think up a solution. She would do a lot of day dreaming about how the parents would just give the black children a new school or the old school would burn down and they would get a new one. But then a bold plan suddenly popped into her head so quickly that she ever after felt it was divinely inspired.

"The plan was to assemble together the student council members whom I considered the ‘creme de la creme' of the school because they were smart and thinkers." Among the students she told were Carl and Edwina Allen, Hodges Brown, Carrie and John Stokes, John Watson, Maulter West, and Sam Williams. She did not tell her sister, Joan Johns Cobb, for fear she would let something slip accidentally.

When the day actually came, Joan was absolutely shocked to see her sister up in front of the auditorium. She literally sunk into her chair as her sister started to talk. Soon about 400 students were on the sidewalk walking to the courthouse. Joan said that "We were all very afraid. I remember my parents being very nervous."

The NAACP attorney Oliver Hill remembered that Barbara telephoned him. She absolutely insisted that he come down. Later he remarked that he would respond to the question "Why did you pick Farmville?" with the answer "We never would have picked Farmville. Farmville picked us. We would have preferred a medium-sized or large city." But they had not counted on Barbara Johns.

The whites of Farmville at first reacted with humor. Editor J. Barry Wall said that it was more a case of the kids playing "mass hooky." But when they learned the NAACP was involved, they turned bitter. They started to maintain that the NAACP had deliberately targeted Farmville for this action. So they started tactics of intimidation. For instance, they called in all the student leaders and very publicly wrote down the students' names. And newspaper editor J. Barry Wall really drummed up resistance. He deeply hated the NAACP.

The whites in Prince Edward County started a KKK-like organization called "Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberty." With the coming of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Defender chapters were opening up all over Virginia. Barbara's involvement attracted the attention of the local Klan-like organization, which burned a cross on her lawn. Fearing for her safety, her parents sent her with her uncle Vernon Johns to Montgomery, Alabama to complete her high school education.

From October 25 through 29, 1999 Hampden-Sydney College held a conference entitled "Prince Edward Stories: Race, Schools, America." Dr. Patrick L. Cooney attended the Tuesday, October 26, 1999 meeting. He reported that the President of Hampton-Sidney said that we were not here for recrimination or for finger-pointing. The President acted very stern and warned against any acts of incivility. Then he told a little of the story. (One thing he got wrong was saying that Inez Davenport suggested the idea to Barbara Johns.) He said that day Prince Edward County was the cradle of the civil rights movement -- it first rocked here in Prince Edward County. He added that Prince Edward was still involved in the process of healing. Then R. C. Smith, author of They Closed Their Schools, made some general remarks concerning Barbara Johns and Vernon Johns and talked about the progress of school integration in Prince Edward County.

One of the respondents to Smith's talk, Mrs. Jean E. Fairfax, said that she had come to Farmville at Hampden-Sidney in 1959 and stayed for six years. She remarked that the story of Prince Edward County was the story of closed minds. But it was also a story of wasted minds, especially considering it was at a crucial point in the children's lives. Then she wondered why Hampden-Sidney had not done more. She asked if the college had provided any intellectual underpinning for the civil rights movement. She hoped that the records of Hampden-Sidney could be opened to see what the faculty, staff, and students there did or did not do during the period of segregation and the fight against it.

Cooney also attended the Wednesday, October 27, 1999 meeting entitled "Children's Stories: Being First, Being Left Out, Wondering What's Going On." The introduction was by the Reverend Eric Griffin, son of the late civil rights hero Reverend L. Francis Griffin, Sr., and his wife Renee Griffin.

The first panelist to speak was a white middle-age man named Scott M. Harwood, Sr. He graduated from the segregated Prince Edward Academy and then from Hampden-Sydney College in 1965. He was very honest and refreshing in saying that he hardly even noticed the events that would later shake the country to its core. He was a senior in high school and, like any other red-blooded teenage male at the time, he was having a wonderful time with cars and girls. Even when he was in college he was totally absorbed in his own affairs and the affairs of the college.

Some of the former black students who were denied an adequate education or received none at all were very moving in their speeches. Willie T. Shepperson who graduated from the "new" R. R. Moton High School in 1955 was very moving in his discussion of how sad it was for the students. Many of the students who were out for five years and could not afford alternative education could not face going back to school because they were to embarrassed to sit in a classroom with students five years younger than they. Of course, it was hard on the blacks, but he also spoke of the reality that because of the school closing, today in Farmville there were a lot of middle-aged white men walking around virtually illiterate.

The daughter of Vera Allen, Edwilda Isaac, both of whom are active in fund rasing for the R. R. Moton Museum of Civil Rights, spoke to the group. As a close friend of Joan Johns, Edwilda had been picked as the eighth grade representative during the school walkout led by Barbara Johns. Because of her involvement in the school strike, her mother's contract with the school board was not renewed. So Mrs. Allen had to travel to North Carolina for work. She could only visit her children and it was obvious that growing up without a mother in her teenage years was a very hard experience for Edwilda.

A black educator, Charlotte H. Womack, was overcome with tears at times as she recounted the closing of the schools. It was obviously very painful for the children and this came through the tears. The speaker certainly was not alone in her tears. Many people in the audience were crying during the recitations of the remembered painful experiences suffered by the children.

The biggest political news of the meeting was delivered by the daughter of the segregationist editor, J. Barry Wall. On behalf of her father, she apologized for all the pain the closing of the schools had cost the parents and the children of Prince Edward County. It was a very moving experience. And all this was started by my young future sister-in-law.

Even after Barbara had to leave Prince Edward County for Montgomery, Alabama, my brother Roland still would see her in the summers. Then she went to Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and he would visit her there. He actually married her at Spellman. She continued to study at Spellman while Roland attended the Eastern Theological Seminary outside of Philadelphia.

Farming was a hard way to earn a living and, thinking of his future, my brother left after three years. As a man who had to think of his wife and a possible growing family and since farming could not begin to provide the type of income necessary for a family, my brother went back to Philadelphia where he took a job with the Department of Social Services. Barbara Johns Powell later returned to college, finished, and got a master's degree in Library Science. (She worked in the Philadelphia public school system until her untimely death of breast cancer.)

So now I was stuck out on the farm -- living alone on a 500 acre farm, 15 miles from the nearest town with a dog as my only companion. I remained on the farm supplementing my meager farm income by teaching school in the county.


Still Another Bumpkin

My neighbor Russell had a number of outlandish views about the world in general and no amount of explanation served to sway him from his ideas. I doubt he had much schooling. Of course, a lack of education among the older black residents of that place was quite common at that time. Many of them were members of farm families which had needed the labor of all the family members simply to survive. He had one habit that I found particularly annoying. He would ask the most intimate personal questions and seemed perfectly unaware that his questions were inappropriate. I found that the best way to deal with his questions was to give the most ridiculous far-fetched answers I could think of.

So it was that one day when he came to visit, he asked where my brother Rowland was. Actually Rowland had gone to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit some friends there, but I didn't think that was any of Russell's business so I replied, "Didn't you hear about him? He went crazy last week. He was gathering up twigs, pieces of string and small sticks with which he said he was going to build a nest up in that big oak tree behind the house. So we (it didn't occur to Russell to ask who "we" was, which would have been a logical question since there were only the two of us living on the farm at that time) tied him up and threw him in the back of the truck and took him to Petersburg (where the state institution for the insane was located). Russell responded: "I told that boy that he had better stop working out in the sun without a hat!"

Russell quickly took his leave (to spread the word, I learned later). I completely forgot about the incident until a few days later I learned what devastation my lie had created. A day or two after my brother returned from Raleigh, he went to a local store to pick up a few items. He came home with a puzzled expression on his face and he said that Nita, the store owner, had acted most peculiarly when he was in the store. "She acted as if she was scared of me, and every time I approached her she almost ran to get away from me! I just don't understand!"

A day or so later he reported another puzzling incident. He said that he was driving down the road when he encountered Mrs. S and Mrs. H walking along the side of the road. When they looked up and saw him driving, they jumped off the road and ran down into the bushes. For a lady of Mrs. S's dimensions, great indeed must have been the fear that would cause her to attempt something so foolhardy!

I began to understand how Russell had taken my story hook, line and sinker and probably with his own embellishments had carried the story over the entire neighborhood. I told my brother about my conversation with Russell and that what he was seeing was a tribute to Russell's effectiveness as a courier, a spreader of information (and in this case, disinformation) throughout the neighborhood.

To my relief, my brother didn't get angry. After all, he too had been annoyed by Russell's busy-body questions. He wasn't greatly concerned that the neighbors thought he was crazy, that is until he learned how devastated Barbara Johns had been when she heard the news. In time, the rumors ceased and my brother resumed his old relationships in the neighborhood.


On Civil Disobedience

"The terrible injustices which are the daily lot of black people in the South will continue just so long as we continue to accept them," said Dr. Johns. "Fight back!" was his unvarying theme Sunday after Sunday in the final pastorate of his career at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "Sure, some of us will die," he would declare. "But what more glorious death could one wish for? It is good to die for a righteous cause. It is far better to die a hero's death in an heroic cause than to live a life of craven cowardice."

Such talk created much uneasiness and fear among his parishioners. They were hard-headed realists and they knew from bitter experience the dangers of fighting back. They knew that survival in Deep Southern society required of them a meek acceptance of the unjust and demeaning conditions inflicted upon them by the unyielding determination of the whites to maintain their traditions and customs and the status quo of the Old South.

And they were fearful for other reasons too. Many of the leaders of the black community shared with the whites a desire to preserve the status quo. They had carved a place for themselves in the terribly perverted social order in which they lived and labored and, although they acknowledged in their hearts the truth, the rightness of Johns' exhortations, they were understandably reluctant to embrace any course of action that threatened their hard earned security.

So that, when Dexter Avenue Baptist Church accepted Dr. Johns' resignation, (the fifth such resignation) they felt that they had ridden themselves of a leader whose insistent, impossible demands could only lead to trouble. They comforted themselves with the belief that their next minister would be less abrasive, less demanding, a man more in touch with the realities of their situation. They chose as their new pastor, twenty-six year old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Final Chapter

After Dr. Johns left Montgomery and relocated in Virginia, I only rarely saw him. I do remember seeing him one day in Virginia when he had bought a new Mercury automobile which he had covered with brightly colored book titles to advertise the books that he carried for sale. Some time later, I was driving in the Germantown section of Philadelphia when I saw that very distinctive car several blocks ahead. I drove as fast as traffic would allow, but I was not able to catch him. He must have turned off to a side street. As far as I can remember, that was the last time I ever saw him.


Vernon Johns and His Neighbors

How did his neighbors view Dr. Johns? What sort of relationships did he maintain with the people who knew him best in the community where he lived?

The Scriptural truism, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house" comes immediately to mind as we attempt to recollect what we know of the relationships that existed between Dr. Johns and the people of Darlington Heights, his home base where he lived when he was not otherwise engaged.

Friends of mine tell me that a white fellow, a resident of the Darlington Heights community, recorded the CBS program "God's Bad Boy" and that he would make copies of the recording for anyone who wanted one. He said, "I knew Dr. Johns, but I didn't have any idea that he did all the things that were revealed in the documentary about him. I thought he was just a guy who traveled a great deal and occasionally came home to farm. I guess he was a true hero."

I gather from his remarks and his attitude that the whites of the community were proud that one of their neighborhood (in spite of the fact that he was black) had been honored with a TV program seen by the whole nation. This man's remarks, his total ignorance of the importance of Vernon Johns in the larger world and particularly in the Civil Rights struggle was, I believe, true of the black community as well. They all knew Vernon Johns, of course, and some of the older residents had known him all his life. Still, they had no inkling of the high regard in which he was held outside their tiny backwoods community.

They knew Johns was "smart" and his courage was also well-known and frequently commented on, having achieved the status of legend. Yet, these simple country folk, whose contact with the larger world was so limited, could hardly be expected to understand and appreciate the scope and power of Johns' influence in the outside world. They thought of Vernon Johns as a maverick, an eccentric, puzzling, strange individual who marched to a decidedly different drum beat.

As a preacher, Johns probably was a disappointment to his neighbors. His quiet conversational delivery, his carefully constructed sermons designed to appeal to reason, not mere emotion, were such a far cry from the Bible-thumping, Hellfire, brimstone and damnation, emotion-filled sermons they had been accustomed to (and probably preferred), that Johns as a preacher could hardly have held a high place in their esteem.

In short, the TV documentaries on Vernon Johns were just as much a revelation to many of the black residents of the community as it was to their white counterparts.


Thinking of My Friend

I think of him often, even now, so long after his death. Sometimes there's a nostalgic yearning for those good old days when I lived on the farm just down the road from my friend. At such times, I get a mental image of a cold, blustery winter night and the two of us seated at the kitchen table with the wood stove shedding warmth and coziness to the room and the ever-present coffee pot bubbling away, and me listening and learning and enjoying as he talked and explained and enlightened. How I wish I could relive those times!!

Sometimes in my reading, I run across a passage that I know would have delighted him. How I wish I could share it with him! I can almost hear his hearty booming laugh, "Haw-haw-haw!! That's rich!"

Sometimes I wish I could talk to him about current problems, about the things that concern me, and about conditions and situations that have developed since his death.

But, of course, I can't. I can only try to follow the path indicated by this brilliant, unorthodox pioneer who befriended me.


A Puzzle

You know, there's something of a puzzle in the relationship that I had with Vernon Johns. No one who knew Dr. Johns ever accused him of being a patient person, for patient, he was not. Nor did he "suffer fools gladly." He possessed a tendency, which I think is quite common among persons of unusually high intelligence; he grasped ideas and concepts instantaneously and with such thoroughness that he was often unable to understand that others, less gifted, had so much difficulty processing what was crystal clear to him.

And yet, in spite of this impatience, this occasionally somewhat irascible nature, he was always unfailingly kind and patient with me. It was as if he understood my limitations, my bumbling endeavors to keep up, my desire to return the numerous favors and kindnesses he did me, my halting and snail-paced understanding and acceptance of the new horizons he opened for me, and my inept attempts to prove worthy of his friendship. He understood it all and treated me almost like a son. I have so much for which to thank Vernon Johns. Truly, he was "My Most Unforgettable Character."


THE JOHNS INFLUENCE

We cannot know the true extent and the value of the influence of Vernon Johns on the affairs of black people in this country. He touched so many lives and in so many ways. Dr. Johns traveled extensively. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be a part of his general make-up a need to keep moving, a sort of wanderlust, and endless search for I'm not sure what. I think it was impossible for him to settle down. He had to keep moving. This may explain why his pastorates were of such short duration. In his ministerial career, he pastored in Philadelphia, Charleston, West Virginia, Lynchburg, Virginia (at the same church on two different occasions), and in Montgomery, Alabama. He was also a president of Virginia Seminary.

In addition, the demand for his services as lecturer were such that he cris-crossed the country frequently, speaking and lecturing before audiences large and small, at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions of higher learning as well as to audiences in rural backwoods places. Where he went, lives were touched.

Some tangible evidence of Johns' influence: Can anyone imagine that it was mere coincidence that his niece, Barbara Johns, led a student strike in Farmville, Virginia with the result that Prince Edward County (of which Farmville is the county seat) was one of the three counties named in the Supreme Court decision that struck down segregated schools? Or is it more likely that Barbara received some part of her inspiration from the fearless example set by her Uncle Vernon?

Rev. L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmville, through his own personal influence and through the influence on his church (by no means by unanimous assent) in turn influenced the student movement, proudly proclaimed his indebtedness to Vernon Johns for the encouragement, support, and inspiration he had received from him. Griffin paid a bitter price for his involvement in the civil rights struggle. He received numerous anonymous phone threats. His family was likewise threatened. His outstanding notes at the bank were called in, his credit was canceled, and his car repossessed. Furthermore, his relations with his church suffered. There were members who were greatly dissatisfied and fearful because of the militant, forthright position he took in reference to the racial unrest in the county. But, undeterred, he continued until his death to carry on the struggle.

Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King's lieutenant and right arm, praised Dr. Johns and looked upon him as an unfailing source of inspiration and advice. He, like so many others, quickly became a convert and disciple of Johns.

On one occasion when Rev. Abernathy was in Lynchburg for a speaking engagement, he stayed at the home of Olivet Thaxton, a local leader in the Lynchburg Civil Rights struggle. During the visit, Dr. Abernathy entertained his host with reminiscences of his many experiences with Dr. Johns. He spoke most admiringly of him and ended his discussion with the observation that Vernon Johns was indisputably the backbone of the Civil Rights struggle.

Interestingly, by way of coincidence, Kenneth Fink, producer of the two Vernon Johns films, expressed to me the same sentiment. He said "My work, researching the background of the Civil Rights battle, led me to the inevitable conclusion that Dr. Johns was ‘The Father of the Civil Rights Struggle.' I have traveled to many places where Johns lectured. I have talked to hundreds of people who had contact with him and I am compelled to conclude that no one single figure loomed larger in laying the groundwork for the struggle than Vernon Johns."

How many others were influenced by this heroic man? We may never know the full extent.


VERNON JOHNS AND MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Dr. King, fresh out of school, possessing impressive academic credentials, son of a family that was highly esteemed in religious circles, seemed to be the embodiment of all that Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Church could wish for in a pastor. (Dexter Avenue was known as a "silk stocking" church because it had so many members who were professional workers.)

He was of an academic bent, a dynamic speaker whose sermons contained more than a hint of the high level of his intellectual gifts, and yet were simple and direct enough so that those less well-educated could benefit equally with those of higher academic attainments.

Drs. Johns and King became acquainted in Montgomery. On the surface, the two men could not have seen more different. Physically Johns was tall, raw-boned, and rugged. He had a muscular sinewy physique hardened by decades of strenuous farm labor, and equipped with two large knotty fists (which he called "my Virginia hams"). Contrast Johns's physique with that of Martin Luther King. King was only five foot and six inches tall with a soft, somewhat pudgy appearance helped along by years of undergraduate and graduate schooling.

Johns hardly looked the part of a peacemaker. One sensed that a violence simmered in him, just below the surface. A man who preached that "If you see a good fight, get in it!" indicated that Johns was going to give a good account of himself in any confrontation. Contrast this with the approach of Dr. King who was a proponent of the Gandhian philosophy of passive resistance and non-violence. He sought to change the hearts of men through love, through an appeal to their consciences and better natures. Armed with such a philosophy, King on one memorable occasion, following the bombing of his home, was able to defuse angry crowds of blacks who were about to arm themselves and vent their outrage and anger in armed confrontation with police and whoever else happened to cross their paths.

The acquaintanceship of Johns and King quickly ripened into a warm, almost father-son relationship. We are indebted to Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch) for revealing some aspects of the relationship between these two men, one a neophyte in his first pastorate and the other, a seasoned, tough old fighter. Author Branch makes it clear that Dr. King was eagerly receptive to the thinking and ideas of Johns. King was inspired by him to the point that he borrowed from him ideas and approaches which he altered and adapted to his own uses. (On page 705, Branch reports that "Meanwhile, at Ebenezer that Sunday, King preached his own version of Vernon Johns's "Segregation After Death' sermon on the parable of Lazarus and Dives.")

I have long believed that Dr. King's most famous public utterance, "I Have A Dream," was inspired by a famous Johns's sermon, "Along Came the Dreamer." In no sense of the word could this be labeled plagiarism. Johns shared freely and liberally the fruits of his creativity.

Despite the friendly relationship that existed between the two men, they were poles apart in their approaches to the solutions to the great social problems that confronted black people in America and particularly in the Deep South. Without question King's non-violence stance served the Civil Rights movement well. That great movement which changed forever black and white relationships in this country was remarkable in that what was done was accomplished with so little bloodshed. There were killings, bombings, assassinations, and murders, of course, but the wonder is not that there were so many, but, in light of the defiant mood of the South, that there were so few.

In spite of the differences in ideology and methods that separated the two men, Drs. Johns and King continued to have a friendly, amicable relationship. Even after Johns had left Alabama and relocated in Virginia, Dr. King, feeling the need for inspiration and the refreshing new approaches that Johns could supply, sent a friend, Chauncey Eskridge, to Petersburg, Virginia to locate Johns. Eskridge's mission was to get from Johns all of his available notes, ideas, sermons, and speeches.

Eskridge, however, had to return to King empty-handed. Johns had no sermon notes, no speeches, no notebooks, and no ideas that had been written out. Johns had no need to record material because of his fantastic memory. Thus, many of the finest speeches of Dr. Johns, and his greatest sermons, are forever lost. King was profoundly disappointed, but he continued to hope long afterward that Johns would record and send him this valuable material -- a vain hope for the material was never sent. (If there ever was any.)

THE JOHNS INFLUENCE

We cannot know the true extent and the value of the influence of Vernon Johns on the affairs of black people in this country. He touched so many lives and in so many ways. Dr. Johns traveled extensively. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be a part of his general make-up a need to keep moving, a sort of wanderlust, and endless search for I'm not sure what. I think it was impossible for him to settle down. He had to keep moving. This may explain why his pastorates were of such short duration. In his ministerial career, he pastored in Philadelphia, Charleston, West Virginia, Lynchburg, Virginia (at the same church on two different occasions), and in Montgomery, Alabama. He was also a president of Virginia Seminary.

In addition, the demand for his services as lecturer were such that he cris-crossed the country frequently, speaking and lecturing before audiences large and small, at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions of higher learning as well as to audiences in rural backwoods places. Where he went, lives were touched.

Some tangible evidence of Johns' influence: Can anyone imagine that it was mere coincidence that his niece, Barbara Johns, led a student strike in Farmville, Virginia with the result that Prince Edward County (of which Farmville is the county seat) was one of the three counties named in the Supreme Court decision that struck down segregated schools? Or is it more likely that Barbara received some part of her inspiration from the fearless example set by her Uncle Vernon?

Rev. L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmville, through his own personal influence and through the influence on his church (by no means by unanimous assent) in turn influenced the student movement, proudly proclaimed his indebtedness to Vernon Johns for the encouragement, support, and inspiration he had received from him. Griffin paid a bitter price for his involvement in the civil rights struggle. He received numerous anonymous phone threats. His family was likewise threatened. His outstanding notes at the bank were called in, his credit was canceled, and his car repossessed. Furthermore, his relations with his church suffered. There were members who were greatly dissatisfied and fearful because of the militant, forthright position he took in reference to the racial unrest in the county. But, undeterred, he continued until his death to carry on the struggle.

Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King's lieutenant and right arm, praised Dr. Johns and looked upon him as an unfailing source of inspiration and advice. He, like so many others, quickly became a convert and disciple of Johns.

On one occasion when Rev. Abernathy was in Lynchburg for a speaking engagement, he stayed at the home of Olivet Thaxton, a local leader in the Lynchburg Civil Rights struggle. During the visit, Dr. Abernathy entertained his host with reminiscences of his many experiences with Dr. Johns. He spoke most admiringly of him and ended his discussion with the observation that Vernon Johns was indisputably the backbone of the Civil Rights struggle.

Interestingly, by way of coincidence, Kenneth Fink, producer of the two Vernon Johns films, expressed to me the same sentiment. He said "My work, researching the background of the Civil Rights battle, led me to the inevitable conclusion that Dr. Johns was ‘The Father of the Civil Rights Struggle.' I have traveled to many places where Johns lectured. I have talked to hundreds of people who had contact with him and I am compelled to conclude that no one single figure loomed larger in laying the groundwork for the struggle than Vernon Johns."

How many others were influenced by this heroic man? We may never know the full extent.

VERNON JOHNS AND MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Dr. King, fresh out of school, possessing impressive academic credentials, son of a family that was highly esteemed in religious circles, seemed to be the embodiment of all that Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Church could wish for in a pastor. (Dexter Avenue was known as a "silk stocking" church because it had so many members who were professional workers.)

He was of an academic bent, a dynamic speaker whose sermons contained more than a hint of the high level of his intellectual gifts, and yet were simple and direct enough so that those less well-educated could benefit equally with those of higher academic attainments.

Drs. Johns and King became acquainted in Montgomery. On the surface, the two men could not have seen more different. Physically Johns was tall, raw-boned, and rugged. He had a muscular sinewy physique hardened by decades of strenuous farm labor, and equipped with two large knotty fists (which he called "my Virginia hams"). Contrast Johns's physique with that of Martin Luther King. King was only five foot and six inches tall with a soft, somewhat pudgy appearance helped along by years of undergraduate and graduate schooling.

Johns hardly looked the part of a peacemaker. One sensed that a violence simmered in him, just below the surface. A man who preached that "If you see a good fight, get in it!" indicated that Johns was going to give a good account of himself in any confrontation. Contrast this with the approach of Dr. King who was a proponent of the Gandhian philosophy of passive resistance and non-violence. He sought to change the hearts of men through love, through an appeal to their consciences and better natures. Armed with such a philosophy, King on one memorable occasion, following the bombing of his home, was able to defuse angry crowds of blacks who were about to arm themselves and vent their outrage and anger in armed confrontation with police and whoever else happened to cross their paths.

The acquaintanceship of Johns and King quickly ripened into a warm, almost father-son relationship. We are indebted to Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch) for revealing some aspects of the relationship between these two men, one a neophyte in his first pastorate and the other, a seasoned, tough old fighter. Author Branch makes it clear that Dr. King was eagerly receptive to the thinking and ideas of Johns. King was inspired by him to the point that he borrowed from him ideas and approaches which he altered and adapted to his own uses. (On page 705, Branch reports that "Meanwhile, at Ebenezer that Sunday, King preached his own version of Vernon Johns's "Segregation After Death' sermon on the parable of Lazarus and Dives.")

I have long believed that Dr. King's most famous public utterance, "I Have A Dream," was inspired by a famous Johns's sermon, "Along Came the Dreamer." In no sense of the word could this be labeled plagiarism. Johns shared freely and liberally the fruits of his creativity.

Despite the friendly relationship that existed between the two men, they were poles apart in their approaches to the solutions to the great social problems that confronted black people in America and particularly in the Deep South. Without question King's non-violence stance served the Civil Rights movement well. That great movement which changed forever black and white relationships in this country was remarkable in that what was done was accomplished with so little bloodshed. There were killings, bombings, assassinations, and murders, of course, but the wonder is not that there were so many, but, in light of the defiant mood of the South, that there were so few.

In spite of the differences in ideology and methods that separated the two men, Drs. Johns and King continued to have a friendly, amicable relationship. Even after Johns had left Alabama and relocated in Virginia, Dr. King, feeling the need for inspiration and the refreshing new approaches that Johns could supply, sent a friend, Chauncey Eskridge, to Petersburg, Virginia to locate Johns. Eskridge's mission was to get from Johns all of his available notes, ideas, sermons, and speeches.

Eskridge, however, had to return to King empty-handed. Johns had no sermon notes, no speeches, no notebooks, and no ideas that had been written out. Johns had no need to record material because of his fantastic memory. Thus, many of the finest speeches of Dr. Johns, and his greatest sermons, are forever lost. King was profoundly disappointed, but he continued to hope long afterward that Johns would record and send him this valuable material -- a vain hope for the material was never sent. (If there ever was any.)



 

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