CHAPTER 2. VERNON JOHNS AS PROPHET
The vast majority of social scientists are prisoners of their own times. They are so imprisoned, that it takes a highly unusual person to break with the prejudices of the times that pass for "truth". In traditional religious times, the path breakers were known as "prophets". Disregarding the prejudice of liberal thinkers against religious thought for the moment, the concept of the prophet can be secularized and applied to the social sciences. For it takes such a person to break with the prejudices of sociologists.
One of the biases of liberalism is a distrust of religion and religious thought. Liberals feel the conservatives have captured this ground and so they don't even like to talk about religion, except in largely negative terms. They prefer more secular terms. So, to talk about modern day prophets is bound to cause some resistance among liberal circles. The modern liberal scholar often sees the prophet as a madman. This is a tragedy. It might be considered a statistical abnormality since it shows up so infrequently, but it cannot be considered a psychiatric disorder. Be that as it may, the risk is worth taking because the term prophet fits Vernon Johns so well. In this interpretation of the prophet, we will speak of the prophet's message in terms familiar to readers of different perspectives: the prophet as God being interpreted through man and the prophet as the spokesman for higher truths.
Some people are just born different from others. They are highly socially sensitive and have an intense commitment to improve social conditions. They are not only aware of injustice, but also feel compelled to fight against it. Not being born with the usual component of social fear, these are restless people who are perhaps never happy in the way their more sedate counterparts are, because society never really lives up to the level of their expectations.
These people are never happy with established positions and accepted lines of authority. The life of the black writer Zora Neal Hurston (1969:132) illustrates part of this phenomenon. She talked about having visions at an early age. Constantly restless, she wrote "I was soon out of a job again. I got out of many more. Sometimes I didn't suit the people. Sometimes the people didn't suit me. Sometimes my insides tortured me so that I was restless and unstable. I just was not the type. I was doing none of the things I wanted to do. I had to do numerous uninteresting things I did not want to do, and it was tearing me to pieces."
In the days before modern psychology and psychiatry, the great men of insight were called prophets. A burning restlessness, combined with a commitment to change and improve things, and the lack of fear of fighting against social evils, leads to a prophet.
Vernon Johns was one of these different people. It is through the study of what makes a prophet that we can gain considerable insight into the character of the man. There are many people writing about Johns who really do not understand him. They do not understand him because they have never had the feeling of prophecy run through them. To them he was abrasive, aggressive, socially clumsy, and insulting. Here was a man on the mountaintop, being viewed through a fog of misunderstanding by others in the valley. It is not easy for ordinary people to listen to, much less accept, a prophet. But this is the task before us. It is not possible to fully understand Vernon Johns if one does not understand the role of the prophet. After all, Vernon Johns was not a professional, constrained social scientist. He was much more than that. Indeed, he cannot be contained by the narrow disciplines of one branch of knowledge of the world.
What is a Prophet?
Henry Powell (1995:29) refers to Vernon Johns as a prophet. He quotes the saying that a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house. The prophet is not like the ordinary man. The average person tries to obliterate the memories of injustice and "live with it" or see it as a normal part of human society. The average person learns to live with injustice. The prophet cannot.
In a book on the prophets, Abraham J. Heschel (1962:ix) remarks that "This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: . . ." He gives a very good delineation of the characteristics of the prophet. But we find that Heschel (1962) is too critical of the prophet and not critical enough of the ordinary man. So we will modify his interpretation to make it more in line with the goals and visions of the prophet rather than those of the ordinary man who looks at the prophet as if he were insane. They have adjusted to evil and cannot understand the prophet's rage.
Personality of the Prophet
1) Experience of the Calling
Modifying Heschel (1962:21) we can say that the prophet "is a person struck by the glory and presence of God, overpowered by the hand of God." The prophet lives not only his personal life, but also the life of God. The fact that he had received a truth powerful enough to affect others is supreme in his existence.
The prophet (Heschel 1962:21) feels himself placed not only above other members of his own society; he is placed in a relationship transcending his own total community, and even the realm of other nations and kingdoms. The measure of his superiority is that of universality.
The prophet feels tremendous responsibility for carrying and advancing the message of God/higher truth. His life is not his own. The prophet (Heschel 1962:21&22) claims to be far more than a messenger. He is a person who stands in the presence of God, who stands, not just a "bearer of dispatches whose functions is limited to being sent on errands." It is impossible for the ordinary man to intuit the grandeur of the prophetic consciousness. A person to whom the spirit of God comes, becomes radically transformed; he is "turned into another man." The gift he is blessed with, or cursed with, or both.
Johns caught this spirit in his sermon "Transfigured Moments." "It is good to be the possessor of some mountain-top experience. Not to know life on the heights, is to suffer an impoverishing incompleteness. To be sure, there is better opportunity for practical pursuits in the valley regions, and life is easier and safer there: but views are possible from the mountain top which are not to be had in the vale." (Johns 1977:338)
2. Sensitivity to Evil
Heschel (1962:3) writes that the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They show immoderate excitement and intense indignation over the fate of poor people or the materialism of the middle class. "To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode: to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world." Heschel (1962:4)
To the average person, the prophets are characterized by "extreme impetuosity. . . .The prophet's words are outbursts of violent emotions." The prophet is "stunned at man's fierce greed." (Heschel 1962:4-5) Vernon Johns rails against greed and the other sins of man. Speaking of the serpent and Adam and Eve, Johns describes man in harsh terms: that "man in his sickly, silly pride of ambition will ally himself with the lowest creeper for his own dubious 'advancement;'" man turned to "inordinate greed;" "the irrevocable covenant breaker;" and as "a race of petty foolish climbers." (Johns 1977:5,8,9,14)
3. The Importance of "Seeming" Trivialities
The prophet seems to be upset with what ordinary men regard as trivialities. Three things ancient society cherished, above all else: wisdom, wealth, and might. (Modern society worships wealth primarily.) To the prophets, such infatuation was ludicrous and idolatrous. Assyria would be punished for her arrogant boasting. To the prophet, man is rebellious and full of iniquity and God is mightily displeased with man's selfish materialism. If he is to be saved, man must get back to God. (Heschel 1962:5-6 & 8)
The ordinary man often sees the prophets' statements as grossly inaccurate. But "what seems to be exaggeration is often only a deeper penetration, for the prophets see the world from the point of view of God, as transcendent, not immanent truth." Heschel (1962:14)
An example from the works of Johns is his condemnation of the materialism of the black middle class. "The second temptation of Jesus seems to be that of middle class prosperity where people are tempted to ostentatious display." (Johns 1977:46)
4. Luminous and Explosive
Heschel (1962:6) writes that the prophet suggests "a disquietude sometimes amounting to agony." The prophet's style is poetic; he uses emotional and imaginative language that is "concrete in diction, rhythmical in movement, artistic in form .. . The prose is charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of nonacceptance."
The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility and impatient of excuses. The prophet is contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. The tone of the prophet is "rarely sweet or caressing," and his words are "often slashing . . . designed to shock " the ordinary man out of his complacency. (Heschel 1962:7) This description fits Vernon Johns to a tee.
Johns said that blacks refused to fight. They were too scared of losing their jobs, their prestige, their status, their very lives. Johns would not accept fear as an excuse. And many times it was an excuse. Witness the fact that blacks never really had an underground press. If the Washington/Moton accommodationists or N.A.A.C.P. gradualists were really afraid of the whites (but still filled with passion to overcome the system) then why was there never an underground press or an underground resistance into which Vernon Johns could have tapped? The reason is because the blacks, liberal and conservative, as well as the whites, both liberal and conservative, worked within the larger racist system. The fact is that the Jim Crow system lasted for what was getting close to one hundred years, if you date it from the movement of the federal troops out of the South in 1876 to the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s. Now that is a long time to be a gradualist. As a matter of fact, change did not come through gradualism, but rather through a second civil war in which the federal government used force, constantly calling out the army and the National Guard to enforce integration and prevent violence in order to ensure that the South would change.
People don't like prophets, because they have accommodated to the structure of injustice in order to advance economically. People cannot accept the message of the prophet because their self-interests are in the way. "To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority, seditious." Heschel (1962:19) says that reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one's conscience from the state of suspended animation. But most people of the prophet's own time do not pay attention to the prophet. They are too tied up in their own pettiness and selfishness, busily pursuing materialistic gains.
The Suffering of the Prophet
The prophet is sleepless and grave for as Heschel (1962:9) asks: Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? "Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave."
While others are intoxicated with the here and now, the prophet has a vision of an end. Heschel (1962:10)
Higher Standards and Sweeping Allegations
The ordinary man living during the time of the prophet has a hard time understanding the prophet. Prophetic accusations are perhaps more easily understood in the light of the book of Job's thesis that men might judge a human being just and pure, whom God, Who finds angels imperfect, would not. Heschel (1962:15)
According to Heschel (1962:24), the main task of prophetic thinking is to bring the world into divine focus. The prophet judges the people not by contemporary norms, but from the point of view of God. The prophet is actually closer to the truth than the scholar, because the academic scholar cannot or dare not confront directly his nation's most serious problems for fear of losing his job and, therefore, his livelihood.
The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions. Heschel (1962:10)
Prophets attack the religion of their times, just as Vernon Johns did. Johns believed deeply in the teachings of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, which is largely ignored by American preachers. Johns (1977:61&64) wrote that "The church has not formally denounced the Sermon on the Mount. It has merely let it slide." Johns condemned his fellow ministers in harsh terms. "When will Christian preachers either preach Jesus or save the public from further deception by unfrocking themselves of His name?"
Another example of Johns' iconoclasm (Johns 1977:142) and sense of humor appeared in his article about "A Religious History of the Civil War," in which he suggested that instead of the government hanging the abolitionist John Brown, whose capture was effected by Robert E. Lee, they should have assisted Brown and hanged Lee instead. This act would have "freed the same slaves and saved the nation billions in property and well over a quarter of a million lives."
Loneliness, Misery, and Harassment
Heschel (1962:16&19) writes "To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God's voice, everyone else appears deaf. . . . Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. . . . The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority, and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words." This leaves the prophet very frustrated for being the holder of a higher truth, but having this truth rejected by lesser men, is extremely upsetting, not so much personally, but for the sake of the fate of the message. The prophet's duty is to speak to the people, "whether they hear or refuse to hear." Heschel (1962:16&19)
None of the prophets were happy with being a prophet nor proud of his attainment. Heschel (1962:17) The prophet cannot be consoled. Human praise of the prophet never consoles him because he is ever conscious of what has yet not been done.
Heschel (1962:18) wrote that "To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach. He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal. . . . The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear."
Certainly Vernon Johns alienated most of those in positions of authority he encountered in the South. Because they did not want to hear his message, they censored him, and limited his access to larger audiences, especially political ones.
Austerity and Compassion
Heschel (1962:12) wrote that "The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. . . . Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.
This message of hope in the writings of Johns (1977:81) is perhaps best seen in his sermon on "What Ails the World?" He asks why is there so much pessimism in the world and reminds us that "it is out of travail that new life comes!" . The cases of the sufferings of Moses, Chopin, and Paul are used to illustrate the message. He refers to the cheerful message of simple faith in God and reiterates that man is in control of his own fate. "What a hopeful view of life!" he writes. Moreover, "Our misery will continue as long as we flaunt our theoretical helplessness in the face of the universe. . . . The Kingdom of God may not be in hand, but it is always at hand."
Anger and Resentment
Heschel does not mention this problem faced by the prophet, but it should be discussed. A prophet is not a saint. He is opposed by those who hear his message. And they are often nasty and hurtful in their opposition. This creates both anger and resentment on the part of the prophet. The prophet can be placed under so much stress that he becomes a person with whom it is difficult to live. At times, it must seem to the prophet that he is going to loose his sense of balance, if not his very sanity. A dramatic illustration of this can be found in the movie "The Vernon Johns Story".
At home Vernon Johns started railing against the middle class blacks of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "They are a bunch of idiots. Just because they are professionals, they think that puts them above the rest of the people. It only puts them in a position to lead. And they're shirking their responsibilities. Of all the congregations I've preached to, this is the most passive and cowardly." He continued by saying "They are a bunch of educated fools. It's not a church; it's a fashion show."
After listening to his harangue for awhile, his wife tried to drown out her husband's complaints by loudly playing the piano. This bit of rudeness brought a violent response from her husband. He grabbed her by the sleeve with such force that he tore the sleeve completely off.
Heschel (1962) also does not mention the problem faced by all prophets: censorship. Vernon Johns never was in the first rank of speakers among blacks. Often Johns was segregated into the field of religion, not exactly integrated into American political and intellectual life. Liberals just ignore dissenters from the system. They refuse to cite the dissenter, or quote him, or even to acknowledge him. They often ignore them, except possibly to allow them to exist on the fringes of the inner circle of influential intellectuals. He was seen as too militant by virtually everyone. But the definition of militant comes from a racist Jim Crow society where everyone is working within the confines of that society. Tuskegee and Hampton, the leading institutions in the old South, were predominantly accommodationist, while the only other real alternative was the N.A.A.C.P. which was largely black middle-class and a gradualist organization as it is still to this day. Where was the support for anyone who refused to accept the system? The answer is no where. You are on your own if you refuse to work within the given racist system.
The Attack of the Philistine on the Prophet
We are disturbed by Heschel. He is too identified with the view of the average person, and not enough with the prophet. One can criticize the prophet, but the real criticism should be directed at the common and not-so-common man. Even the educated people in society are largely trying to work within that society in order to gain good positions with good incomes and prestige so that they can have comfortable lives with good families. This is what most people care about. Anyone who fundamentally challenges an existing structure of awards will run into very defensive, and even petty attitudes of resistance. Human beings are primarily materialists, not idealists.
Those who do not want to see the system of racial equality change, or who want to see that any change that comes is slow enough that they remain in a comfortable position, are not favorable to the message of the prophet. Rather, they say that if only the "prophet" had been less abrasive, less opinionated, less attacking, he would have had a greater impact.
This is largely a rationalization for not changing and not paying attention to the prophet. All these charges were made by various people to some degree against Vernon Johns. But there is an old saying "If they like you, they'll overlook all your flaws; if they don't, they'll find any excuse to get rid of you." This certainly applies to the prophet. Uncomfortable in his presence and with his message, the comfortable find any excuse to dismiss him.
Any prophet has to develop on a very thick skin if he is going to continue trying to get his message heard. He will have to become "rude" just to protect himself from the "moral outrage" of those who are supposedly liberal and working to improve social conditions.
In fact, the more one attacks a person's character, the less one actually has to pay attention to his message. But, of course, this is the unadmitted plan of those offended by the message. This type of defensive strategy is often seen among racists and sexists. To take one example, many people opposed to sexual equality would never dare attack it directly. But they will go into almost apoplectic fits in their denunciation of the character of any woman pushing hard for equal rights. Their passionate denunciation of the person is so overpowering and unfair, that one has to wonder what is the real agenda. "The gentleman doth protest too much" and it makes one suspicious of the speaker's motives.
Those who call the prophet "offensive" and "abrasive" fail to examine themselves in this matter. The public never considers how their defensive behavior in ignoring the prophet's message forces the prophet to take on a more "abrasive" demeanor. The sheer frustration of the prophet in being rejected by the comfortable, even out of mere self-defense, would soon lead the prophet to have a "short fuse" and a "bad temper."
Another popular charge against the prophet is that he is arrogant. But the prophet is less arrogant than the average professor. In fact, the prophet is much more likely to be aware of all that he does not know because he realizes how little academic effort there is on behalf of the new perspective that the prophet is urging. Academicians publish within narrow paradigms in order to further their careers. If they do not follow the narrow patterns, they are ignored by other colleagues or even dismissed from university employment. This narrow, constrictive paradigm approach is not one that is open to alternative views, especially not to ones that are offered by a prophet.
In short, the moral character of the comfortable cannot begin to match the moral character of the prophet. But the comfortable will never see it this way because it is too threatening to their narrow existence. A great deal of criticism of Vernon Johns was offered by people who knew him or dealt with him. But it must be remembered, for the most part, these people were comfortable with the system of Jim Crow segregation; they had developed a cozy niche for themselves in that morally evil society. (Actually, Vernon Johns had a very tender side to him. He was mentor and substitute father to many young black men, many of whom are still intensely devoted to the memory of Vernon Johns almost forty years after Johns' death.)
The False Issue of Character
That John's eccentricities were not the cause of his being ignored by the intellectual world of the South is shown by the career of the much more publicly successful W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois was somewhat of an elitist snob who was very critical of others. His biographer, David L. Lewis (1993) describes Du Bois with such terms as arrogant (with eighteen references to this in the index), class conscious, egotistical, elitist, racially oversensitive and quick tempered, and argumentative.
But this testy temperament certainly did not stop Du Bois from being well-known among American liberals. They liked Du Bois because they liked his message. They did not like Vernon Johns because they did not like his message.
Lewis (1994:349,365,&469) wrote that Du Bois's "incorrigible candor" had a lethal impact on Atlanta University. He had a "hair-trigger temperament" which constantly caused problems in situations where compromise was necessary. Mary Ovington, a key founder of the NAACP, often had to repair the damage done by Du Bois's temperament. Any perception of the slightest racially tinged condescension or arbitrariness caused him to react instantaneously, vigorously, and not infrequently with an acerbity that even his partisans thought overblown or plain petty.
Du Bois (Lewis 1994:352) had a kind of "perverse arrogance" about him "that only poisoned further the well of white beneficence." He "was profoundly averse to compromise on anything that mattered intellectually or racially." He made most whites either angry or miserable according to Ovington. In the index under arrogance of Du Bois, there are a full eighteen entries. There are four entries under egotism and five entries for elitism and two for sarcasm.
Du Bois (Lewis 1994:471) was very arrogant. He saw his role in the association as so indispensable and symbolic that virtually any inference was judged to be either racist or perverse. His arrogance knew few bounds. In fact, one time he told the reading public of The Crisis that the NAACP had "never expended a single cent for the publication" of the journal. Many wanted Du Bois removed, but this could not be done as he was much too publicly known. Many saw the NAACP as consisting of little more than Du Bois himself (and, apparently, so did Du Bois).
Toward his own family (Lewis 1994:451&464), he was "patriarchal in his role as husband and father." In fact, he largely ignored his family. His wife and daughter both suffered as a result. His wife, Nina, was often sick with various psychosomatic illnesses. Du Bois met Cornel graduate Jessie Fauset who became a protégée, then collaborator, and, finally, lover.
He himself knew he would never make a good leader of any civil rights organization. He realized that he was not a "mixer" and knew there was no use of his trying to be a popular leader. (Lewis 1994:468)
The most devastating comments on his character came from Joel Spingarn, once head of the NAACP. In a critical letter he wrote to Du Bois, Spingarn (Lewis 1994:492-493) said that "Surrounding you always . . . I have found an atmosphere of antagonism. . . . You had to be approached with care and diplomacy, and made to do things by wheedling and questioning, as children are induced to do them . . ." Du Bois had "single-minded policies and imperious demeanor".
Why Have So Few Heard of Vernon Johns?
The real problem was not Johns's temperament, but rather the preference of liberals for ideas congenial to their own beliefs and values. Johns was a much greater thinker than Du Bois in the sense that Johns's ideas led to a successful civil rights movements, whereas organizations like the NAACP are too elitist and too middle-class to instigate and support a mass civil rights movement. (The NAACP did not like the civil rights movement at first. Thurgood Marshall called Martin Luther King, Jr. terrible names.)
American history is liberal history. And the problem with this is that American liberalism still operates within a larger racist reality. Liberalism works for moderate changes within an overall racist system, rather than fundamentally altering that system so that racism can be seriously challenged. And since liberals write history, they conveniently promote people they like and demote people they do not like. The Vernon Johns story is one of constant social control both by liberals and conservatives. His life story is a living contradiction to American liberalism and that is why liberals still want to ignore him. When they do write about him, they want to ignore the reality of how he was treated, overlook the social control of which he was a victim and talk only about how brave he was to stand up against the racist system and how wonderful we are now for allowing such freedom of speech.
The life of Johns is nearer to the truth of everyday life than that of King's, who was the inheritor of the mantle brought about by the alignment of important social forces. Everyone likes the King story because it is an American success story. Everyone was brave with King. But the Johns story is the story of the masses of blacks and whites accommodating to terrible evils to which Johns was not willing to accommodate.
Why have we not heard more of Vernon Johns before? Why, even though he has had a movie done on his life in Montgomery, Alabama, is Vernon Johns still an obscure figure? Henry W. Powell (1995:1), a young neighbor for nine years of Johns and the brother-in-law of Barbara Johns, 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 distrusted 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, yet, 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 nation. 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 large numbers of people.
A prophet cannot be indifferent to the fate of his message. If he is being ignored then that means his message is also being ignored. This is unacceptable to the prophet. The prophet knows that he himself is not that important compared to the message. The message is everything and it has to go out no matter what it takes to get it out to the larger public. It is the responsibility of the prophet to get the message out. It would be irresponsible for a prophet to take a background role. (Sometimes a prophet is forced into a background role. This is because the message is unacceptable to the larger public. So the prophet can only affect a few people who can be looked upon as disciples.)
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.
Now you might say that Johns would have been more effective if he was not quite so outspoken. I seriously doubt that. No one could have been effective against Jim Crow until the larger economic and political forces aligned against it. So to say that Vernon Johns should have been less militant is to say that he should not have spoken out at all, because in order to work with the existing Jim Crow system you would have not been able to speak out. You would have taken the prophet out of Vernon Johns. And then we would not be discussing Vernon Johns this day. He was inspirational precisely because he would not compromise, because he would not accept the overall racist Jim Crow paradigm.
Vernon Johns was neither a gradualist nor an accommodationist, therefore he was one of the very few Southerners that publicly dissented from the Jim Crow system. And yet both white and black authors want to dismiss him as an eccentric. Wouldn't you have to be eccentric to go up against everyone? Doesn't a prophet, from the point of view of the Philistines, have to be eccentric? And shouldn't the authors who insist on dismissing Johns as a virtual eccentric wonder if they themselves are not also Philistines?
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