CHAPTER 25. MONTGOMERY, LATER YEARS, 1950-1952
Vernon Johns at Home
Vernon Johns had started preaching in Montgomery, Alabama in 1948. This, however, did not stop him from frequently returning home to Darlington Heights.
In 1949 from Philadelphia the Rev. W. H. R. Powell family came to live in Farmville. His two sons were Henry and William. Henry Powell was born in Pittsburgh, but at two months of age the family moved to Philadelphia where his father became pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church. Henry first learned of Vernon Johns when he attended a sermon given by Johns at his father's church. He remembered Johns saying that he had a family that included six children and they all lived on a farm that provided them with sufficient food and "almost enough" clothes. His father had wanted to send Henry away from Philadelphia and the troubles of the big city. Henry, living on campus, attended Virginia Seminary from 1941 to about 1945 (taking one year off). Henry then attended Virginia Union, graduating in 1950.
Shortly before his graduation from Virginia Union, Henry's father purchased a farm of 493 acres in Darlington Heights for $14,900 dollars. In the summer of 1949 Henry Powell's father and Vernon Johns attended a ministerial retreat and conference at Hampton Institute. Johns invited Reverend Powell down to his farm. While there, Rev. Powell immediately fell in love with a farm he saw for sale on the left side of Route 665 about a mile and a half west of Vernon's farm. He decided to buy the place. Rev. Powell set up a Bible camp there for summer residents, but it was never very successful. He should have involved people closer to Farmville, said his son William (William Powell interview). The farm had eighteen head of cattle and forty hogs and they raised wheat and corn.
William Powell Jr. still has a pamphlet from the Seventh Annual Hol-Reba Bible Conference held August 6-18, 1963. The farm house pictured on the front of the brochure had a colorful awning over its porch was set on a wide lawn and looked very bucolic. There was a colorful awning over a porch. The address was Box 56, Cullen, Prince Edward County, Virginia. The program offered a number of programs by different religious speakers on various parts of the Bible. W. H. R. Powell, Jr. was one of the devotional leaders. Lodging was $2 dollars a day, while board (of three meals) was only $3 dollars. The entire cost of a week at the conference was only $35.
We owe a lot of this information to Henry W. Powell (1995:9). He had a very special relationship with Vernon Johns. Johns was mentor, advisor, and confidant to Powell. Powell even came to think of Johns as a surrogate father. So Powell got a special look into the life of Vernon Johns. Powell remembers Johns as being a gifted raconteur with a good sense of humor and a wide range of stories of unusual experiences and encounters (many of these engineered by Johns no doubt). Vernon was dividing his time between Montgomery and Farmville. Henry Powell estimated that Vernon may have even spent two weeks a month in Farmville during this period.
For about three years after graduation from Virginia Union Henry Powell worked on the farm in Darlington Heights where they grew tobacco, corn, and wheat. He did not like farm work very much, especially hating the terrible heat and the itching: "I couldn't wait to get into the shower after work." So it is not surprising that Henry became a fifth grade teacher. He taught in Farmville from 1956 to 1959 (when Prince Edward County closed its schools to prevent school integration).
He had quite a few neighbors including John Roebuck and his mother, Mrs. Hamilton, along with the Wheelers, the Berkeleys, and the Watkins. Henry always felt somewhat of an outsider in Darlington Heights for those in the small town considered him so. He also did not care much for the gossipy nature of the small town. One neighbor in particular was extremely nosey. Tiring of being constantly grilled about his private affairs, one day Henry told the gossipy neighbor a tale about his brother, William. He said that William had gone crazy and that they had to take him to the hospital in Petersburg. Henry completely forgot about the incident, but it was to produce some ludicrous results. His brother came to him one day and said that when he was driving into Farmville he passed two of the ladies of the neighborhood who, upon seeing William, jumped into the bushes. William had also noticed that when he entered Vernon Johns' store, Anita Spencer (Tracy Spencer's wife), who ran the store, acted as if she was scared to death of him. Henry finally had to explain to William the ultimate cause of all this sudden fear.
Henry liked to hang out over at Hampden-Sydney College. One day some of the guys pledging in the fraternity told Henry that they had heard that he lived on a farm and also told him that they were in need of some ducks and pigs. Henry said that he could supply them with the pigs, but that they would have to go over to the two ponds on Vernon Johns' property to get the ducks. The fraternity pledges drove there and waded in the cold water to capture five or six ducks. The pledges later dyed the ducks and the pigs different colors. They then returned the pigs and ducks to their original owners. Henry forgot about the incident until one day Robert Johns, Vernon's brother, came rushing up to him saying "Henry, you've got to come out with me to Vernon's place. There are ducks out there of all different colors." Robert explained that at first he saw this blood red duck, followed next by a blue one, and then an orange one. "Come on. You have got to see this!" Henry could barely contain himself. He told Robert he could not accompany him to Vernon's place. As far as Henry knows, Robert never found out what had really happened.
One day Henry Powell (1995:4) drove Vernon to Hampden-Sydney College where Vernon was to pick up some mail. While waiting for Vernon, Henry decided to enter a local store. Upon leaving the store, he found Vernon Johns surrounded by students for whom he was translating from Latin a plaque mounted on one of the buildings. "The expressions on the faces of the students showed surprise, and fascinated interest. Here was this black man in rough farm garb translating Latin. They both had a good laugh about the incident on the way home."
Vernon Johns's Last Stand in Montgomery
When Vernon and Barbara Johns arrived in Montgomery, Jeanne Johns was the only year-round child in Montgomery. The others had gone off to college, Adelaide at 16 and Enid at 15. Jeanne said "We all got full scholarships so they did not have to pay for our education." She said of Barbara Johns: "She had fire in her too. She enjoyed the visit probably because most young people enjoy the city (Montgomery) as compared to the country (Darlington Heights)."
Mrs. Altona Johns was honored at a reception held in the lovely residence of Professor and Mrs. C. T. Smiley sponsored by the ladies of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The affair was in celebration of Mrs. Johns having recently been awarded the M.A. degree in piano education by Teachers College of Columbia University the previous summer. (J&G October 27, 1951:3) There were one hundred guests which included members of the church, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and the Anna M. Duncan Club, organizations with which Mrs. Johns was affiliated. In the receiving line were Professor and Mrs. Smiley, Dr. and Mrs. Johns, Professor T. H. Randall, Mrs. W. J. Reynolds, Miss Marguerite Moore, Dr. W. D. Pettus, C. C. Beverly, Robert D. Nesbitt, and Miss Olivette Dean. Julius Carroll, acting chairman of the music department of Alabama State College, where Mrs. Johns was a professor of piano, lauded her ability as a musician and her efficiency as a teacher. Miss Evelyn Wysinger, presented the honoree with a lovely set of Eisenberg jewelry with pin and earring in the shape of the G-cleft. Other gifts were presented, including a cash token.
Vernon Johns continued with his economic message. He would refer to the congregation as a pack of educated fools because they produced nothing. And since they produced nothing they were just consumers. And this made them nothing better than parasites. He (Chung 1989) would say "As far as I'm concerned I will provide you with anything except whiskey and contraceptives." He would also hold up vegetables for all the congregation to see. "Now just to show you what can be produced on a small piece of land. I grew this in the back of the parsonage and I left the roots on to prove that they are not store bought."
On the television program "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" (1989) Nesbitt said "It wasn't nothing for Vernon Johns to bring stockings into church to sell." The program had a scene in which Nesbitt passed Vernon Johns on the street. Johns said "Deacon, can I sell you a fish?" Nesbitt replied "Dr. Johns, don't you think that fishmongering is an undignified undertaking for a minister of the gospel?" Johns retorted "Deacon, do you think carpentry was an undignified undertaking for the savior?"
One day Vernon Johns asked Dr. Sutherland (interview with the authors). "Why do you think the lord would tell me to get out of Alabama?" Evidently, Johns had a dream. Johns saw himself leaving Montgomery. They discussed the difference between a prophet and a pastor. Dr. Sutherland said that unlike the pastor, the prophet does not merge with his community. Asked if Johns saw himself as a prophet, Dr. Sutherland said "He didn't say it, but he acted it." He added that Johns was not a man to brag about himself. He didn't put himself into his sermons.
Taylor Branch (1988) writes that the last straw had come when Vernon Johns and Rufus Lewis drove onto the campus of Alabama State College with a truckload of watermelons. He says this really upset the women in particular. The deacons called Johns in and Vernon walked out. Nesbitt later carried out his duty by informing Johns that the board of deacons had recommended that the church accept this latest resignation, his fifth. In a tense meeting, the Dexter congregation agreed by majority vote.
During an interview with Garnell Stamps and Lee Greene, Henry Powell asked "Do you know what his final words were?" Powell said that at Vernon Johns' last appearance before the congregation someone asked him: "Rev. Johns this is your last Sunday with us and we were wondering if you had something you would like to say." The controversial minister said "Yes, I believe there is something. " He stood up and said "Kiss my ass."
Garnel Stamps asked Alton Morton "Did you ever hear him (Johns) say anything about that church in Montgomery?" "He told me everything." "What did he say?" "He said the people there did not back him. He had a vision that things were going to happen, but the congregation was not with him."
Abernathy (1989) reported that Johns was stunned by the acceptance of his resignation. He decided to stay and fight for reinstatement. Altona resigned her position at Alabama State and left for Virginia State. Now alone Johns would often come over to the Abernathy's house, especially when the board turned off the electricity and gas at the parsonage. For a while he used the stove to cook his meals, burning back copies of the New York Times and the Washington Post, to which he subscribed and had saved for years. He wore two and three sweaters to bed and several pairs of socks, but he still shivered all night. He finally left Montgomery.
A few weeks later, he wrote Abernathy that he had been invited to speak at Religious Emphasis Week at Dillard University in New Orleans and would like to stay with Ralph and Juanita on Saturday night and preach at the First Baptist Church of Montgomery on Sunday of the next week.
List of Complaints Against Vernon Johns
1) too much economic activity (the problem of class segregation)
If whites wanted to keep their social distance from blacks, middle class blacks wanted to keep their distance from lower class blacks. Johns constantly railed against class inequality among blacks. Johns's selling farm produce on the street scandalized the Dexter congregation. In this class conflict, Johns sided with the less privileged, hoping to get the more privileged to help set up businesses among the black community.
One of the class conflicts within the black community came over the playing of black spirituals. Dexter did not allow spirituals (Branch 1988:11). Johns loved Negro spirituals, such as "Go Down, Moses," "We'll Soon Be Free," and "I Got Shoes." He tried to schedule spirituals at numerous planning meetings, only to be told that it was "not done at Dexter." He tried to get the church organist, Edna King, to begin the spirituals, but she refused. He responded with lectures on the important differences between dignity, pride and vanity.
Another example of the upper class attitude of the church was provided by Jeanne Johns Adkins (1993): "And once when my father preached, some lady shouted and an usher went up to her and she said that she had shouted because she had been moved by what my father had said. He said Yes, but you don't get moved at Dexter.'"
Contrary to the desire of middle class blacks, Johns constantly preached that blacks could work together to improve their lives (Yeakey 1979:101). He wanted blacks to be more independent of the whites. He said it was almost criminally shortsighted for educated Negroes to cling to titles and symbolic niches instead of building an economic base from which to deal more equally with whites as well as among themselves (Branch 1988:16). He tried to organize a cooperative food store in the Mobile Heights area in the southern part of Montgomery, but there was not enough community support and it failed. Many people lost money. He also tried to start a shoe store and sold fish in the basement of the church (Yeakey 1979:105).
Coretta Scott King (1969:95-96) related a story about Vernon Johns that her husband often told. She wrote that "Martin was a wonderful mimic, and when he would tell this story, you could just hear Dr. Johns' thick Virginia drawl." The story went thusly: "One time Dr. Johns was performing a very staid and elegant wedding ceremony for one of the most outstanding Negro families in Montgomery. The church wedding had been proceeding, but just before the marriage was final, the minister stopped. He peered up and said, I would like to announce that right after the wedding there will be a watermelon cutting in the church basement. It will be twenty-five cents a slice, and for all you economical-minded people who order half a melon, the price will be a dollar fifty.' Then, without stopping for a minute, Dr. Johns continued, I now pronounce you man and wife.'
Taylor Branch (1988) makes a great deal of Vernon Johns's unorthodox selling methods and their impact on the congregation. The sermons attacking the authorities and the blacks themselves were one thing, but this was compounded by Johns's continued efforts at selling produce. But the authors would remind the reader of a saying often heard in relation to job employment: "If they like you, they will forgive every sin and keep you; if they don't like you, they will find every fault and fire you." It was much easier for the congregation to say they fired Johns because of his unorthodox habits rather than his preaching message. One of the worst sins for a social scientist to commit is to take as truth what his subjects say. The reference to the unorthodox social acts were largely rationalizations for the fact that Vernon Johns assaulted the professionals' and academics' sense of self. Johns challenged the social structure in which they led comfortable lives. He told them what was unforgivable: that they were not as smart as they thought and that they were cooperating with segregation. Johns would have eventually been fired even if he never committed any unorthodox social acts. The white community would have kept increasing the pressure on the black congregation until Johns would have had to go. But it is much easier to refer to his social behavior than to his message as the real reason for his being let go from the congregation.
On the television program Saturday Night with Connie Chung (1989), Andrew Young reported the story of a prominent family in the congregation of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church whose son was murdered. Vernon Johns felt that the son didn't amount to anything, never went to church, and hence did not deserve a funeral service in the church itself. The family persisted and the deacons forced Vernon Johns to have a service in the church. Andrew Young reported that on the day of the ceremony, Johns marched to the pulpit and quickly said "So and so lived a trifling and worthless life. He went around Montgomery daring someone to cut his throat. Saturday night somebody obliged him. He lived like a dog; he died like a dog. Undertaker claim the body." Finished, Johns immediately turned around and left.
Vernon Johns was by temperament somewhat socially insensitive, but he was also deliberately insensitive as a way of fighting class prejudice in the black community. The charge of Johns being uncouth and socially insensitive is also related to class conflict within the black community. To the black middle class congregation (Yeakey 1979:109&110) "He seemed uncouth and backward, dressed poorly and seemed to care little for style and fashion." He would think nothing of walking into distinguished assemblies wearing mismatched socks, with farm mud on his shoes. In some respects, he appeared to mock their stuck-up, affected self images." Many thought he behaved eccentrically and acted beneath them.
This characteristic of Johns actually makes him more endearing as a prophet. Henry Powell often said that Vernon Johns was a regular guy with whom anyone could talk. He was not snobbish as were many of the black middle class. Powell says that Vernon Johns just did not care about material things. For instance, one day Henry saw Vernon Johns at the store. Vernon told Henry that he just laid out $175 dollars for a new suit in order to attend some fancy ceremony. And $175 dollars in those days was a considerable amount. But two days after purchasing the suit, here was Vernon Johns in the pants of that expensive suit working in a muddy ditch. Henry reiterated that Vernon did this because he placed such little value on material things.
His sermons were often too "earthy" for his congregations (Yeakey 1979:110). In the early 1950s at Luther Foster's inauguration at Tuskegee as president of the school, Johns remarked that "When my grandfather was hanged for cutting his master in two with a scythe, they asked him on the gallows if he had anything to say. He said yes 'I'm just sorry I didn't do it thirty years before' and they dropped the trapdoor."
Bob Smith (1965:78) reported that Vernon Johns was not beyond changing a story a bit to make his point more forceful. For instance, after the Farmville school strike he told the slavery-day story of the white master whose slave turned on him in the fields and beheaded him with a scythe. According to the way Mr. Johns told the story, it all happened quite near the location of the old Moton High School.
Yeakey (1979:107, 108,110) says that Johns was curt and abrasive, always direct and to the point. "Whatever came into his mind he said it." "His ways drove people away, forced others to view him as a little crazy, and kept the few with whom he had to deal with regularly in constant contention with him." Moreover, "No one could predict what to expect from Vernon Johns when he went into the pulpit. He might say anything." But Yeakey does not understand the prophet. If only the prophet were not abrasive, so the saying goes. But then the prophet would not be a prophet.
Many authors seem to want to dismiss Johns's life by calling him an eccentric; that he would have been effective "if only" he were not so eccentric. Nobody would have been effective in Vernon Johns's day. Certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a relatively run-of- the-mill pastor before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King would never have spoken out like Vernon Johns did. And wouldn't you have to be a little crazy to speak out in a Jim Crow society where not only the whites were telling you to shut up, but the blacks also?
3) social bluntness
Powell (1995:5) acknowledges that Vernon Johns was known for his social bluntness. He went to a church in Washington D.C. or Richmond where they said they would not pay him a fee for preaching, but would pay for all his expenses. But no one met him when he arrived. Johns had to pay for his room and board and the taxi fare to the church. He told an officer of the church that he wanted to be paid. "Well, what will you do if we don't pay you?" "I will take you to court for breach of contract. Pay me now, or pay me in court." Then he told the entire congregation off: "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 to your dishonesty. If what we've seen here 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." Needless to say they never called him again.
Vernon Johns was riding the bus one day and noticed the terrible conditions of the "colored" area (Powell 1995:19). He went up to the bus driver and said "Isn't separate but equal the damndest lie ever spawned in hell?" The driver evaded Johns by saying he was not responsible for the policy. Then Johns went to the manager of the station and repeated his question. The manager quickly took his leave of Johns.
When entering the post office in Farmville, a white man (Powell 1995:15-16) asked him "Say, do you know nigger so and so?" Vernon Johns said "I cursed him completely, told him about his miserable gutter origins, about the low life style and revolting habits of the misbegotten clan that whelped him. I cussed him 'till leaves trembled on the trees and the sun shook in the heavens." The man turned out to be the mayor of Farmville. But even if Johns had known this, he still would have said the same to him.
Johns (Powell 1995:15) often used arrogance to counteract condescension. When he spoke at a program in Ohio where the main speaker was Senator Robert Taft, the hostess in a condescending tone asked "In what order would you like to be presented?" Vernon responded "Oh, just put me wherever you want the best speech." Senator Taft was told of this and after the program he came up to Johns, shook his hand, and told Johns that he had indeed given the best speech.
4) bad temper and potential violence
Yeakey (1979:106) complained that Johns was very short tempered and would simply not tolerate simpleminded foolishness or allow an injustice to go unchallenged. Powell (1995:26) admitted Johns's short fuse and bad temper were legendary. Even his own parishioners were afraid to attack him directly because of his legendary temper.
That Johns was not a pacifist is related by the following tale (Boddie 1972:66). Johns was riding a slow train through Arkansas. The train stopped for refreshments. To a young white boy serving as a vendor he shouted "Come here, boy." As the boy approached Johns a white man called to the boy and he diverted towards the white man. Johns bellowed "Come here, boy" so loudly that it frightened the boy and he turned and went towards Johns. This so maddened the white man that he menacingly approached Johns. Johns, however, brought the man up short with the determined words: "Just crease your lips, and your brains will be mingled with the gravel!" Back in Montgomery, the absent-minded Johns drove through a red light and was apprehended. Appearing before the judge, Johns discovered him to be that white man from the Arkansas train platform.
Powell (1995:17-18) said that Vernon's wife was involved in an automobile accident in Farmville. They went to court. In court the lawyer referred to his wife by her first name "Altona." Vernon Johns roared from his seat in the audience "Don't you call my wife Altona. Her name to you is Mrs. Johns." After a short while the lawyer repeated "Altona" again. Vernon Johns jumped up brandishing a chair and advancing on the lawyer. "I told you not to call my wife Altona, and if you call her that again, I'll break your neck." A female lawyer replaced the male lawyer and she was courteous during the remainder of the court session.
Jean Johns Adkins (1997 interview) says that her father was so bodacious that he scared white people. This is related to the traditional Southern fear of the "crazy Negro" (Dollard 1949:294). "The attitude seemed to be that they are enough to be feared when they are officially sane; when they are proved insane, special caution must be used."
Vernon Johns (Powell 1995:28) did not rule out violence. He taught the philosophy of "Fight back!" "One sensed that violence simmered in him, just below the surface."
5) too militant
Yeakey (1979:108&110) found that many in the Dexter Avenue congregation thought Johns put too much emphasis on the fight for civil rights for blacks. Some of the comments of the congregation were "We did not want to do those things he campaigned for; we were afraid of being criticized" and "He seemed too militant." They were scared and too adjusted to the system of segregation. What they were afraid of and thus did not want to do, they labeled "militant." It is amazing how thoroughly blacks become adjusted to the system of segregation and fail to support those who challenge the system (rather than merely take a radical-liberal or socialist approach within the system of segregation).
The only really legitimate complaint against Vernon Johns was that he wrote very little, relying too heavily on the spoken word. Johns was a maverick who seldom wrote anything down. This made it harder for him to get his message across and harder for researchers to use his words in a recreation of his story. The tragedy is that he did not fully recognize his own role as prophet.
How Did Johns Cope with Rejection?
Why have we not heard more of Vernon Johns before? Why is Vernon Johns, even though he has had a television program and a movie done on his life, still an obscure figure? Henry W. Powell (1995:1) said that 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 mistrusted it. He preferred a background role and anonymity to public acclaim.
There is no question that Johns was a tough cookie. He had a natural ability to be socially insensitive to people individually, at the same time, caring mightily for them as a group. This actually is a characteristic of many American politicians, including many presidents of the nations. Men like Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon were terribly difficult to talk to on a one-to-one basis, but they were absolutely at home with a large number of people.
But we should not confuse a defensive attitude as an innate one. There is a good deal of isolation forced on the prophet, as almost everyone rejects the message in ways that are often harsh and nasty. This social rejection of the prophet is accompanied by a good deal of resentment and anger on the part of the prophet.
A prophet cannot be indifferent to the fate of his message. If he is being ignored, his message is also being ignored and that is unacceptable to the prophet. Indeed, it is the responsibility of the prophet to get the message out. It would be irresponsible for a prophet to take a background role. The prophet knows that he himself is not that important compared to the message. The message is everything and it has to be delivered no matter what it takes to get it out to the larger public.
Part of Johns's way of coping with rejection was that he had an amazing ability to close his mind on the problems of his past. This is seen in his sermon "What to do with What is Left" given as the closing sermon commemorating the eighty-third anniversary celebration of Montgomery, Alabama's First Baptist Church (colored) given Sunday at 7 p.m. July 30, 1950 (Bratcher 1950). It is a wonderful sermon that inspires one to go forward despite one's past, rather good or bad.
Johns takes as his text the phrase "Strengthen the things that remain" from Revelation 3:2. He starts the sermon talking about some of the most general losses that individuals experience. These include the loss of goods, of time, of golden opportunities, and character. "But to stop with a review of our losses would be false to the text! It is to what is left that the text directs." He then gives many examples from sources such as the Bible and the Napoleonic Wars where people accomplished wondrous things after seeming defeat. And they did so by focusing on the task at hand and not on the past.
"Let that which is lost become unimportant, lest the lost past causes us to lose also the present and future. 'Forgetting the things that are behind, I press forward to the mark.' It is tragic to lose what we yet may be by becoming engrossed either in how good we were or how bad we were . . . . as long as we are alive we have something potentially significant left if we realize it. With all our material losses, our loss of time and opportunity and character we have something left. While life remains we still have time." "There are instances of success where but little remained. What wonders may be possible for this church to which so much is left" (Bratcher 1950:112-113). This is the attitude that is needed if one is to be a prophet -- a single-minded devotedness to persevere against resistance from others.
Influence on Others
The dismissal of a fighter for civil rights does not mean that a failure has occurred. Vernon Johns had a great influence on the black community of Montgomery. Yeakey (1979:110-111) was very critical of Johns, but even he admits "Regardless of his problems with the church, he did raise the congregation's political consciousness."
We will discuss his influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. in the next chapter. But there were several other prominent people that Johns affected including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and several women of Montgomery.
Ralph Abernathy (1989:114-115) was drafted into the army in 1944 at the age of eighteen. By the time he got to Le Havre, France the war with Germany was almost over. He did arrive in time, however, to see the utter devastation of many of the German cities. Back in the United States, he attended and graduated from Alabama State University. He accepted a position at First Baptist Church, Montgomery. He talked about the differences between the old and new guard in Montgomery. The old guard were primarily preachers of the Gospel of "other worldliness." There would be equality after you died and were in heaven, but not on earth. They felt the idea of desegregation was either frivolous or threatening. They preached strict adherence to the law. They had a good relationship with the white leaders and they did not want this threatened. These white leaders occasionally gave them minor posts of honor in the community. Behind doors they would denounce the whites, but in public they would say nothing controversial. The new guard consisted some of the younger preachers who wanted to do something about civil rights.
Consistent with Abernathy's comments on the old guard, this other-worldly emphasis seems always to be present. In a study of black clergymen in the 1920s Mays and Nicholson (1933:59, 122-123, 249) found that of the 100 sermons, 26 dealt with concrete life situations or were what may be called practical; and in a few instances they had social implications such as the relating of religion to the economic, racial and international aspects of life; fifty-four were predominantly other-worldly; the other twenty were highly doctrinal or theological. Rural messages are more uniformly other-worldly. In a study of the activities of 609 urban churches, there were no events of an activist nature, although 590 engaged in poor relief.
Abernathy says one of the older pastors who agreed with the younger generation was Vernon Johns. When Abernathy assumed the pulpit of First Baptist Church, Johns became Abernathy's closest friend among the other Montgomery pastors. Abernathy referred to Johns as a "genius in the pulpit." Abernathy said he had first seen Johns in 1951 while Abernathy was a student at Atlanta University. Johns had been chosen by all-male Morehouse College as their speaker for Religious Emphasis Week. Vernon Johns encouraged Abernathy who became a disciple. Abernathy saw a new generation of black men and women coming along. They stressed courage, justice, and equality.
Mary Fair Burks (1990), chairman of the English department at Alabama State College, began the Women's Political Caucus in 1951 in response to the refusal of the local white League of Women Voters to integrate. The caucus grew to a membership of nearly two hundred. She wrote that her inspiration was a Vernon Johns sermon given in 1946.
Burks (1990:81), who had attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, became a faculty member at Alabama State College. She had suffered a terrible experience in Montgomery. After being cursed out by a white woman for coming too close to the higher caste member in her car, then being very roughly treated and arrested by the police. She wanted to do something about segregation. "But where to start?" She relates that she had no idea until Vernon Johns in 1946 mounted one of "his scathing attacks on the complacency of his affluent membership." Most of the members, she said, wore "masks of indifference or scorn" in reaction to his sermon.
Burks (1990:71) said that a trailblazer according to the dictionary is a pioneer in a field of endeavor, while a torchbearer indicates one who follows the trailblazer, imparting tested knowledge or truth provided originally by the pioneer in its rudimentary form. "Rosa Parks, Jo Anne Robinson, and members of the Women's Political Council were trailblazers. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a torchbearer." But, of course, the greatest of the trail blazers was Vernon Johns. (This statement is a little too harsh toward Dr. King, but it does point out some of the difference between the prophet and the strategist.)
The Women's Political Caucus benefited from the slight differential in forbearance shown by Southern whites in their dealings with black women as opposed to black men (Lewis 1970: 49). The organization took the initiative in demanding fairer treatment for the city's black citizens. A handful of courageous men, such as Attorney Gray, Mr. Nixon, and Professor James Pierce, collaborated with the Council. This group had succeeded by 1955 in pressuring the white merchants to negotiate out of existence the separation of drinking fountains and the custom of not supplying titles of Mrs. and Miss when billing female customers.
A key member of the Women's Political Caucus was Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College (Parks 1992:110) . Over the years she had her share of run-ins with bus drivers, but at first she couldn't get the other women in the Council to get indignant. She was from Cleveland, Ohio, while most of the other members were natives of Montgomery. When she complained about the rudeness of the bus drivers, they said that was a fact of life in Montgomery. Later she often brought protests to the bus company on behalf of the Women's Political Council. Finally she managed to get the company to agree that the buses would stop at every corner in black neighborhoods, just as they did in the white neighborhoods. But this was a very small victory. One of the other tasks that the Women's Political Caucus tried to accomplish was the opening of the parks to blacks. The only concession they won was permission for blacks to walk through the white parks on their way to work for the whites.
Another person active in the civil rights movement that Johns affected was Rufus Lewis. On the television program "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" (1989), Rufus Lewis said about Johns "If he had courage it kind of gave you some courage too. So you were helped by his courage. It increased yours if you had any. And if you didn't have any, he'd give you a little."
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