CHAPTER 23. EARLY YEARS IN MONTGOMERY, 1947-1950
Vernon Johns, a man who did not accept racist ways of thinking, was about to step into a thoroughly racist society, both black and white, and where even in the black community the conservatives dominated. There was going to be trouble for everyone involved. (And thank goodness for that!)
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
R.D. Nesbitt, the church clerk of light tan skin at Dexter, "was one of the most widely known and highly respected men in the black community" (Yeakey 1979:50-51). He was an agent-salesman that worked his way up to become an executive of the Pilgrim Life and Health Insurance Company. He dressed well and conducted himself professionally and was reserved with strangers and even some of his friends.
Looking for a new minister for his church, in the late summer of 1945, Nesbitt traveled for the first and only time in his life to the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, its five million members making up the largest association of blacks in the world. His candidate was Alfred Charles Livingston Arbouin, a Jamaican and a Benedict graduate, who began his duties six months later. Almost immediately, Arbouin became involved in scandal. While her husband was away at the 1946 National Baptist Convention, Arbouin's wife caused a scandal by taking up with a soldier from the nearby Maxwell Air Force Base (Branch 1988:5-6). When criticized, she declared that she was a victim of spousal abuse and showed her bruises to the deacons who called her in for a private meeting. The deacons called for Arbouin's resignation. He refused to resign, but the court decided in favor of the deacons. R. D. Nesbitt was again looking for a minister, but the church waited nearly a year before seeking a new minister.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
|Photo of the church taken from the steps of the Alabama capitol|
Vernon Johns at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church: 1948-1952
Alabama State College had hired a new music professor: Altona Trent Johns. She had taught music at R. R. Moton high school in Farmville, Virginia. Nesbitt knew about her husband Vernon Johns, considered one of the three great black preachers, the others being Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman. Through Mrs. Johns, Nesbitt invited the eminent preacher to deliver a trial sermon. Johns did so, reciting a long passage of scripture without looking at the Bible. They were so impressed that they suspended precedent for the first time in Nesbitt's memory and offered Johns their pulpit without an investigation or a second trial sermon. On the television program "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" (1989) Nesbitt remarked that "During his trial period at the church he was very professional. He displayed that type of intelligence that would fit the congregation. . . . We had a silk stocking church so to speak. We had a different Vernon Johns to start with, but after having been there for a period of time, the real Vernon Johns came up. And, of course, we were stuck with him then."
In October 1948 Vernon Johns moved into the parsonage at 309 South Jackson Street between Key and High -- the home of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church ministers since 1919. Built around 1912, it is the last house of a row of houses. It is a rather long house; in fact, seven windows long. The roof has black roof tiles. It has a porch supported by four columns. The front door has two sidelights and a transom light over the door. Coretta Scott King (1969:100) said the parsonage was sixteen blocks from the church -- in a segregated neighborhood. "Our house was basically very nice but was run-down. It was a white frame structure with seven big rooms and a porch that later became rather famous. . . . The furniture was of varied style, but very comfortable, and anything we thought we needed, the congregation gave us."
Parsonage of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Ever the firebrand and traveler, Vernon Johns traveled up to Princess Anne County, Maryland to give an address to the faculty and students at Maryland State College Eastern Shore (J&G December 18, 1948:17), attended by one of Vernon Johns' sons, John Johns. He characterized educated Negroes as "economically, socially and philosophically illiterate." Obviously, his long absence from a regular job did not slow him down. He paid tribute to the idea of education and scholarship, but roundly assailed Negro education and educated blacks, declaring, "I know what the white man gets out of Negro education, but I have never been able to learn exactly what it is that Negroes are supposed to get out of it." "Negroes have mastered the subject matter, but have somehow missed the matter of the subject. They have made B- in civics and D- in citizenship."
He charged that educated blacks are economically illiterate because they have not seen the wisdom of participating in any of the fundamental economic processes of the nation; they are socially illiterate because their "see-saw philosophy" has precluded any widespread dedication to effective community action; and they are philosophically illiterate because they have not demonstrated the courage of men who have found something for which they are willing to die. The speaker charged that blacks have wasted their economic strength. He declared succinctly, "The Negro has a wheelbarrow income and Cadillac ambitions." Dr. Johns asserted that the race has never pledged itself to concerted action for social betterment. Moreover, he was scornful of the Negroes' fears asserting, "No man is fit to be alive until he has something for which he would die." "We Negroes need to resolve," Dr. Johns concluded, "that we will not be forever hired out and forever sold out and forever bought out."
Vernon Johns was an expert on the Civil War (Powell 1995:24). He said "Black people should know about the Civil War because, in the final analysis, black people were the only beneficiaries of the cataclysmic blood letting." At the start of 1949, Vernon Johns spoke before the Richmond Civil Council at Fifth Street Baptist Church. His subject for the occasion was "The Downfall of Dr. Douglas S. Freeman's Idol." (J&G January 1, 1949:15) Dr. Johns laid bare the uncanny military genius of General Robert E. Lee as contrasted with "Lee's bad judgment, which until the day of his death, found him believing that God was on his side." The speaker declared that Lee "always thought that God was a Mississippi planter who was humane to animals and his slaves, never realizing the truth that God was a fighting New England Abolitionist" (J&G January 8, 1949:4). After giving an historical background to the battles which led to the defeat of Lee with an emphasis on the rise of General U. S. Grant in the battles on Lookout Mountain, at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Dr. Johns related the struggle between Grant and Lee from May, 1864 to the close of the war as an object lesson for the "spirit of battle Negroes must wage against un-American discriminations."
Johns described the position of Grant on May 5th after the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness as one of "defeat in the eyes of lesser men." "But unlike McClellan, Burnside, Pope, and Hooker, who had retreated in the face of Lee's assaults, Grant ordered a moved around Lee's flanks and wired Washington that he was sending his wagons back for new supplies and planned to fight it out there in the Wilderness 'if it takes all summer.'" "It took all summer, and all winter, too, but Grant pursued Lee until he had defeated one of the great geniuses of all military history. And here in our struggle against the evils of discriminations in American life for our people we must fight 'if it takes all summer;' we must fight until we finish the job as Grant did."
The liberties we now enjoy were "purchased at a frightful cost in lives and treasure and when white people look at the irresponsible way many of us are exercising those liberties they have a right to curse our memory when they remember what it cost. As part of our duty to repay what we cost the American nation, we must be able to discover what is unworthy in us by adverse self analysis."
The speaker expressed the view that the full integration of Negroes in America is "up to us." He warned that "we recognize that we live in the midst of people who are determined to fix upon us a contemptuous and contemptible estimate of ourselves" and admonished against the present state of affairs in which "we are leaving entirely to the other race the management of our existence." Dr. Johns concluded with a hopeful plea that "with courage and industry we complete our emancipation."
In June of 1949, President Elisha G. Hall (interview November 3, 1997) of Virginia Seminary, heard Vernon Johns speak at Virginia Seminary at the time of his graduation. Johns had on a white coat, what was supposed to be white for it was quite dirty, and he said "Well, I was out shuckin' corn and since I didn't have any more corn to shuck I thought I would come over here to see what you all were doing" just as if shucking corn was more important than the commencement address. Dr. Hall remembered the students enjoying the speech very much and clapping heartily. Later, President Hall took a course in music education from Mrs. Johns at Virginia State. He said that she was a very nice person. Altona said to him, "My husband is going to speak at Virginia State." When he saw Johns, he said who the heck is this guy anyway, all trampified like this. But when Johns began to speak, Hall said "Great day! He could speak." Vernon Johns liked to draw out his words for effect. He said Vernon Johns liked sermons with some thought in them. He hated "light" sermons. He would say "That sermon was so light, I could have stayed at home. You (the audience) could have done as well."
Davis (July 15, 1949 West Virginia State College archives) wrote Mr. Rutherford a note asking "Will you be kind enough to get permission to pay Dr. Vernon Johns one hundred dollars ($100.00) in connection with his acceptance of my invitation to deliver the commencement address here at five o'clock in the afternoon of August 19, 1949? I will appreciate your prompt attention to this matter."
On July 16, 1949 (WVSC archives) Davis wrote Johns: "It was stimulating for me to see you at Virginia State College a few days ago. Naturally all of us regret exceedingly the cause which brought so many sad people to Virginia State College on July 8, for Dr. Foster's funeral. I am again inviting you to deliver a thirty minute commencement address here at five o'clock in the afternoon on Friday, August 19, 1949. . . . We will be able to take care of your expenses in coming to us and in addition provide a modest honorarium. You are familiar with our situation here. The people in this State hold you in high esteem and will welcome the opportunity to hear you on the occasion of our Summer Commencement Exercises."
Johns was the speaker at the summer session graduation exercises at West Virginia State College in August 1949 (Yellow Jacket, August 12, 1949:1). President Davis (WVSC archives) gave the introduction: "Ladies and Gentlemen: It is stimulating to be in contact with a person of brilliant mind. It is uplifting to listen to a man who can think independently, clearly and creatively. Such are the known traits of our Convocation Speaker today. He is a preacher and a farmer. His success at farming has in some instances and with some people dulled the acoustic reception of his gospel message but not the power of the message. It is difficult to find in the pulpit of the church today the thinking and preaching equal of our speaker. I am happy to present now as our Summer Convocation Speaker a student, writer, scholar, teacher, farmer and preacher -- Dr. Vernon Johns."
Constant Fighter for Civil Rights
Vernon Johns (Yeakey 1979:103&105) "preached practically all the time on social conditions. His overriding concern: fight for civil rights." And Johns pretty much acted alone for he did not get much help from the other ministers. Rufus Lewis said that "He was the most outstanding man for preaching in our city; and many of the other preachers came to hear him preach." He, however, had little to do with the other ministers. Why should he, he reasons, since "they were not doing anything"
In an interview with the youngest of the Johns' children, Jeanne Johns Adkins said her father had no patience with upper class blacks. They weren't giving him anything back. In Montgomery the professors would be driving Lincolns and Cadillacs and be so proud. But at the department of motor vehicles the black professors at college were standing against the wall filling out their forms. He sat down, and someone told him that "Blacks don't sit." He replied " "Well, this black is going to sit."
We asked Jeanne if this kind of confrontation tickled her? "When his wrath was pointed at us, we were not too tickled, but when his wrath was pointed at others, we were tickled." She also added that Deacon Nesbitt tried to apologize to her and her sister Enid when they visited Montgomery recently.
Lee Thaxton told us that Dr. Trent, Vernon John's father-in-law and president of Livingstone College, asked Vernon Johns "Vernon, maybe I reckon you'll behave yourself now. . . . You going to stay down there?' Vernon replied ‘If they don't mess with me I will. But if they do, I'm going to raise hell.' (laughter) Johns was something else. I used to love to hear that guy preach."
There was an announcement that Vernon Johns would preach the following Sunday on the topic "Segregation After Death." The whites became nervous and the police chief invited the minister down to the station to explain himself. Taylor Branch (1988:12) relates how the police chief asked Rev. Johns to come down to the station to explain himself. Instead of explaining, Johns started spouting the sermon from memory. It sounds somewhat doubtful to the authors of this book knowing the deep racism of southern whites, but Johns later boasted that after his sermon there was not "a dry eye in the station house."
In the actual sermon Johns reiterated an idea he had often preached about previously. He told the story of Christ's parable of the beggar Lazarus who went to heaven and the rich man Dives who went to hell, but the arrogant Dives stilled called out to father Abraham to have Lazarus bring him some cool water to ease his torment in hell. But Abraham spoke of the "great gulf" that separated them. Johns likened this great gulf to segregation. What sent the rich man to hell was his insistence on segregation, not his wealth. In the sermon before his congregation Vernon Johns said that the segregationist attitudes of the white church goers made them as Christian as "sun worshipers." But what was so wonderful about Johns was that he saw segregation not just as a white problem, but a black one also. He saw the cooperation of blacks with segregation. He asked his own congregation on the day of the sermon, "What preacher wouldn't love to have a church full of members like Dives?" These types of remarks must have scandalized many of the well-dressed congregation.
He made the congregation feel uncomfortable as he said that the blacks, like Dives, were segregating themselves off through their wealth (Branch 1988:12). Off the pulpit, he often said the black middle class congregation were "spinksterinkdum Negroes" who paraded in the "fashion show" that was their church.
Other controversial sermon topics were "Constructive (or Creative) Homicide" and "When the Rapist is White". Vernon was not a believer in nonviolence. He believed in taking whatever measures were necessary to achieve our God-given or constitutional rights (Abernathy 1989:120). His text was from Genesis, the story of how Moses was first chosen to lead his people, and Vernon began by summarizing it as follows: "God saw Moses when Moses slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand, and he turned to an angel and said "Write that man's name down. Later on I can use him in my program.'" Then Johns said to the young men assembled before him: "If I were to summarize in a single phrase my remarks to you today, I would title them -- 'Constructive Homicide.'"
Johns was also socially outspoken (Branch 1988:15). One Sunday Dr. H. Councill Trenholm, president of Alabama State College, the largest employer of Montgomery Negroes generally and of Dexter members in particular, came to church. Johns growled "I want to pause here in the service, until Dr. Trenholm can get himself seated here on his semi-annual visit to the church." Trenholm never returned to Dexter while Johns was in Montgomery.
June 10, 1950 (p. 1) the Journal and Guide carried the story of the NAACP victory in the Sweatt Case that admitted a colored student to the law school of the University of Texas. President Truman was asked to speak at Tuskegee by, among others, President F. D. Patterson of the institution. Segregation's end is near, Thurgood Marshall naively declared (J&G June 17, 1950:1).
"Johns called meetings with community leaders and worked to change the discriminatory treatment blacks received in the downtown stores and businesses in hiring and employment practices (Yeakey 1979:100-101). Few blacks in Montgomery could forget his efforts on their behalf." One instructor at Alabama State College, Mrs. O. B. Underwood, remembered that "Reverend Johns refused to be pushed back at any place, and he was very vehement with whites. He used to block doors, he used to stand on corners and sort of bless them out." His reputation as someone who stood up against the whites brought him black women who came to him with stories of being raped and beaten by white men. Each time he drove the girl to the Tuskegee hospital in the dead of the night for a medical examination. He went with the victim to file charges at the police station. The first case ended in an acquittal and the second went nowhere, as local authorities refused to order the accused, all policemen, to stand in a lineup.
In 1948, President Truman's executive order of July 26, 1948, ended segregation in the armed forces. This had an obvious effect on Montgomery since the city was heavily dependent on Maxwell and Gunter air force bases (J&G July 9, 1949:18). Colored airmen, boarding Montgomery City Lines buses at Maxwell Field would take the first vacant seat on buses. The drivers, however, compelled them to move to the rear seats or take a refund of their fare. Twice last week colored airmen have been forced to vacate seats reserved for white persons. The first incident occurred when four colored airmen in uniform boarded a bus at Maxwell Field and took seats toward the front. The driver ordered them to move to the rear or accept a refund of their fares. One of the airmen replied that they were on government property, and, therefore, permitted to occupy seats of their choice. The driver admitted that they were on a government reservation, but said they were riding on the bus company's property and, therefore, were governed by city and state segregation laws. Two of the colored airmen elected to move to the rear and two accepted refunds and got off the bus.
There was considerable talk of banning bus segregation in Virginia. Even Governor Battle of Virginia heard a plea for an end to bus segregation. The bus lines favored the end of Virginia travel segregation as did the white pastors. The Boothe anti-segregation bill would have banned segregation on the buses. On March 4, 1950:1 the paper reported that "Secret Killing of Boothe Measures Stuns Virginians." The bill was shelved by the Courts of Justice Committee of the Virginia House of Delegates (J&G Jan 28, 1950:11;Feb 11, 1950:1; February 25, 1950:1).
In 1952 in Montgomery a white bus driver and a black named Brooks, who had been drinking, exchanged words over the dime the passenger put into the slot of the meter box (Robinson 1987:21). The driver accused Brooks of not putting the money into the box. The driver called the police, and when the police came they shot and killed Brooks as he got off the bus. Some blacks even argued that Brooks had gotten "out of his place" with the white bus driver.
Vernon Johns got into the act, protesting bus segregation. One day he decided not to move from his seat as requested by the bus driver. The bus driver stormed to the rear, shouting "Nigger! Didn't you hear me tell you to get the hell out of that seat?" "And didn't you hear me tell you that I'm going to sit right goddamned here?" Johns replied. The driver, stunned by the forceful vocabulary of the well-known minister, retreated in confusion (Bailey 1994:42; originally in Bennett 1976:49-50). Johns told the blacks on the bus to follow him off in protest, but no one followed. One Dexter church member on the bus remarked that he "should knowed better" than to try something like that.
One day Johns walked into a white restaurant and ordered a sandwich and a drink to take home with him (Branch 1988:14-15). His entrance into the all white establishment immediately brought an end to the customers' conversations. They stared as Johns sat waiting for his sandwich. The attendant fixed the sandwich but poured the drink slowly onto the counter in front of Johns. Vernon simply ordered another drink saying "There is something in me that doesn't like being pushed around, and it's starting to work." In the Connie Chung program (September 23, 19 ) they show Vernon Johns grabbing the attendant by his shirt collar and pulling him down to the point where the two men's faces were inches apart. This seems consistent with Johns's temper and reports of his use of violence. This challenge brought an immediate response from some of the white customers, who ran out of the restaurant heading for their pickup trucks and cars for their guns. Confronted with this show of force, Vernon later said "I pronounced the shortest blessing of my life over than sandwich. I said ‘Goddamn it" and hurriedly left the restaurant.
Relating this story from his pulpit the following Sunday (Bailey 1994:42; originally in Bennett 1976:49-50), the Rev. Johns said that he did not believe that God was offended by the unauthorized use of his name. He told his congregation that God probably said, "I'd better keep an eye on that boy; he's going to do a lot for Christianity down South."
"It's Safe to Murder Negroes"
The television program Saturday Night with Connie Chung (1989) brought out that in the bloody spring of 1949 a series of murders infuriated Johns. For instance, a white man on his porch saw a black man running down the street. The white man went in to get his double-barreled shotgun. He shot the black man dead. The killer's explanation: "If he was running, he must have done something." It was the second week of May in 1949.
Toni Johns said "As I recall, a black girl had been raped. I think it was by six white police officers. We took her in our car to the hospital at Tuskegee Institute. I knew something bad was going to happen. I didn't know what. He was so agitated. He was talking under his breadth. He said: I'm going to change the subject of my sermon to ‘It's Safe to Murder Negroes.' I knew that that was a volatile subject."
Abernathy (1989:120) remembered it somewhat differently: "There was a period of particularly harsh repression, with almost every week the police were killing blacks, particularly on Saturday nights. A poor black man was shot down in the street just below Vernon Johns' church one Saturday evening. Everyone in Montgomery knew that he had been killed by a white man, and everyone was reasonably certain who the murderer was. But there was no serious investigation by local authorities, and it was clear that the killing was to be swept under the rug like so many other such killings over the years. The black leadership in the community grumbled behind closed doors. . . no public protest was voiced . . . with one exception. The following week Vernon posted on the bulletin board outside his church this sermon topic: It is safe to kill Negroes in Montgomery."
The newspapers reported that Johns was going to preach this sermon on Sunday morning and the white community was up in arms (Abernathy 1989:121). As it happened the all-white grand jury was then in session. When word reached them of the sign in front of Vernon's church, they charged that Vernon Johns was inciting people to riot and subpoenaed him to show why he should not be indicted. So the police department sent an officer to pick him up and bring him into the station. Vernon Johns called the sheriff's office and told them he would be happy to come in and testify before the grand jury, and agreed to appear at ten a.m. the next morning."
Wyatt T. Walker on the program Saturday Night with Connie Chung (1989) said that "Just after he put it out on the church bulletin board, the commonwealth attorney came down. And Johns did not dress up much." In fact, Johns in overalls looked more like the church janitor than the church minister. The program had the following dialogue: "Hey, boy come here." Johns kept sweeping the sidewalk by the church bulletin board. "Make it light on yourself and get on over here before I got to cause you some problems." Johns came over. "Whose the pastor of this church?" Johns said "Can't you read? Vernon Johns. Reverend Vernon Johns." "Don't sass me boy. You think this ‘John' actually means to preach this sermon?" Johns replied "Well, knowing the Reverend as I do, he will either preach it in heaven or he will preach it in hell." The white man responded "Well, we'll see about that. You tell Vernon I said be at the police station at three o'clock. And don't make me have to come back after him."
Johns went to the police station. "Boy, didn't I tell you to send the parson down here?" Johns replied "I am the minister of the church." "Well, why didn't you tell me who you were when I talked to you awhile ago?" Johns slyly responded: "Am I obliged to identify myself to every chance stranger I meet on the public thoroughfare?"
The judge asked Johns why he would want to preach such an inflammatory sermon dealing with the murder of one race by another. "Well, judge, the truth is always inflammatory," Johns answered and added: "Because everywhere I go in the South the Negro is forced to choose between his hide and his soul. Mostly he chooses his hide. I'm going to tell him that his hide is not worth it."
Abernathy (1989:121) reported that Johns "sat down and answered all the questions put to him, carefully pointing out that a black man had indeed been shot and killed in broad daylight, that nothing had thus far been done to bring his murderer to justice, and that until such time as an arrest had been made, the words on the board outside his church were no more than a statement of fact."
Vernon Johns (Yeakey 1979:104) was considered one of those "crazy Negroes, who the white folks didn't mess with." On one visit to the local police station an officer told him what might happen to him if he continued his inflammatory sermons. According to James Pierce (quoted in Yeakey 1979:104), a political science professor at Alabama State, Vernon replied "Two days from now my son's going to Korea, to fight, so many thousands miles away and yet he's fighting for those people for those things which he has been denied here. . . . I just as soon for him to die here as to die over there, and by dying here he will be dying for his own cause."
The judge merely issued a warning to Johns. The judge actually decided to let Johns deliver the sermon as is, because he thought it would be the lesser evil (Branch 1988:23), saying "The whites of Montgomery would pay more attention if I stopped you." Vernon Johns sent letters to the city commissioners inviting them to send twelve of their best policemen to worship with his congregation the Sunday when the sermon was to be preached.
Toni Johns (Chung 1989) remembered that "There was a little telephone table in the hall right by my parents' bedroom. I picked it up. We're going to lynch you, you niggers." Saturday night a cross was burned at the church and cracked the glass on the church bulletin. This did not deter Vernon Johns.
We asked Jeanne Johns Adkins if she was upset by the burning of the cross? She said: "We accepted the fact that it goes with the territory." Probed on this topic, she admitted: "We were tense."
Toni Johns (Chung) said "I was never frightened when I was with my father. I was frightened for my father. Well I used to be afraid all the time that he was going to be killed or get hit or beat or whatever because he was always doing things that were outside the proscribed behavior for blacks. I thought white people might beat him or kill him. Those are things I never really talked about. I used to wonder if he was ever going to come home."
On the day of the sermon, Johns raised all the church windows in order that people could hear if they were standing outside (Yeakey 1979:103-104). The service was well attended. The police were infuriated, but they stayed in cars parked across the street from the church. In the sermon he predicted that violence against Negroes would continue as long as they "let it happen."
Johns's sermon had to compete with the sound of the policemen constantly revving their motorcycle engines. The atmosphere was highly charged. On the Connie Chung program Rufus Lewis commented that "I think people were a little afraid because they were so close to the capitol. And Vernon Johns didn't give a rap about that. He was so forthright in his speech, so forthright in the type of things he said that it frightened some people. They were just afraid. They didn't know what would happen to him nor to them."
Quoting from the program (Chung 1989), Vernon Johns said:
I just want to remind you what the clearest and simplest of these great ten commandments is: Thou shalt not kill. The Birmingham paper says that you have a better chance in 1948 of being murdered in Alabama than anywhere in the U S. A lot of the people doing the killing are the police officers who should know the law as well as anybody.
The officer Orris Thrash killed Amos Star for resisting arrest. Shot him in the back. So I guess he was resisting while running away. And right here in Montgomery two police officers took a man, handcuffed him to a tree and beat him. Didn't kill him though. They got charged with assault. Just two weeks ago another Montgomery policeman got it right. He shot and killed one Henry Lee for resisting arrest. The coroner ruled it justifiable homicide. All these cases were justifiable homicide.
But you know there is no justifiable homicide. God never spoke about justifiable homicide. He said Thou shalt not kill. He didn't say thou shalt not kill, unless you've got an excuse. He didn't say thou shalt not kill, unless you are a police officer. And he most assuredly did not say thou shalt not kill, unless you're white.
Last week, a white man was fined for shooting a rabbit out of season. But of course, it's safe to murder Negroes.
A rabbit is better off than a Negro because in Alabama niggers are always in season.
What would God have said if he had looked down upon us last week here in Montgomery? A Negro man was stopped by a trooper for speeding and brutally beaten with a tire iron while other Negroes stood by and did nothing. What would God have said when he looked down and saw an enraged police officer take up a young colored boy and use his head as a battering ram when the boy's father said nothing, did nothing?
I'll tell you why it's safe to murder Negroes. Because Negroes stand by and let it happen. Do you know what occurred to me as I watched that cross burning in front of the church? When the Klan burns a cross it's a message. The next step is lynching.
As I watched that cross it occurred to me that what we call the crucifixion is just that -- a lynching. Isn't it ironic? Everything we worship was made possible by a lynching. Because at that ultimate moment of death Jesus spoke the words that transformed a lynching into the crucifixion. That made Jesus the redeemer, not the condemner. Jesus said Father forgive them for they know not what they do. But you know what you do. And the white police officers who are free day after day to murder Negroes know what they do. And when you stand by and watch your brothers and sisters being lynched it's as if you stood by while Christ was being crucified.
In the program one of the congregants stood up to protest saying "We don't need this. And we don't need you to come here talking to us like this."
Johns responded "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites! And that's you! Because you sit here Sunday morning and sing hymns while you know that every Saturday night your brother's been shot down in the streets and you know nothing -- except fear.
Are you afraid of trouble? Are you afraid of death? Are you afraid that if you speak too loudly, protest too strongly, you will become one of those lynched? Well, you may well be. He who takes not this cross and follows me is not worthy of me. So there you have the question. Are you worthy of Jesus or are you only worthy of the state of Alabama?"
Whether actually spoke everyone of these words is not known. But the words do, however, express the courage and spirit of the prophet Vernon Johns speaking from the pulpit mountain top.
Premonitions of Termination
As feelings hardened on both sides, Johns became more shrill. He continued to sell his fish and vegetables to members of the community. Branch (1988:18) writes that "It was the fish that first got him hauled before the board of deacons. He abruptly resigned and walked out the door. Nesbitt was detailed to seek him out and arrange a truce. Nesbitt was actually more of a man in the middle. He was one of the few who was not a teacher." One time Johns walked out of church in anger when the organist continued to refuse to play anything but the most conservative hymns. Nesbitt had to chase him several blocks down Dexter Avenue, begging him to return to the service. (Branch 1988:19) Still another resignation was tendered and refused in 1950.
During the following summer, Johns taught at the Virginia State College summer school for ministers at Petersburg (J&G July 16, 1949:14). There was an announcement in the paper that summer school for ministers would begin at Virginia State. It would last three weeks. The school was sponsored by the recently organized conference of Negro Colleges on Rural Life, including Hampton Institute, Bishop Payne Divinity School, Virginia Union University, St. Paul Polytechnic Institute, and Virginia State College. Virginia Seminary had been invited to cooperate. (J&G June 19, 1943:7) Other members of the school faculty were Dr. W. H. R. Powell, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Philadelphia; Dr. Harry W. Roberts, director; and Miss Selena B. Robinson, instructor in English. Harry Roberts, head of the sociology department at Virginia State, received his Ph.D. in 1943 from Yale upon acceptance of his thesis The Life and Labor of Rural Negroes in Virginia. (J&G March 6, 1943:1 and Mar 7, 1945:4) Johns also served as acting director of religious activities at Virginia State College.
"For the past three weeks Dr. Johns brought to the ministers attending the summer school his profound scholarship, deep religious insight, courageous creative thinking and boundless enthusiasm and inspiration. He is the preacher at the Sunday morning chapel service. He is now in the process of preparing a book for publication entitled ‘Preaching the Parables.' Dr. Johns is pursuing the study of philosophy at the University of Chicago." (J&G July 16, 1949:14)
Dr. Vernon Johns delivered the convocation address of the summer session at West Virginia State College August 19 (J&G August 27, 1949:17). Eighty-three students graduated at the summer session.
News that Altona Trent Johns (along with coauthor Vivian Flagg McBrier) had written a music book came out in the Journal and Guide on October 15 (1949:6). The two teachers published Finger Fun with Songs to be Sung for elementary school children.
The words and music were based on themes of special interest to children providing opportunity for fun while learning the elemental principles and techniques of music both oral and instrumental. All the illustrations in the book were of colored children. The paper said that Mrs. Johns taught music at Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Mrs. McBrier headed the music department at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C., and was formerly music teacher at Dunbar High School in Lynchburg, Virginia. The book sells for $1.50 and may be secured from the publishers, Handy Brothers, New York City.
"Choir members of Alabama State back from tour", announced the Journal and Guide (December 7, 1949:16). Forty students chosen from the Symphonic Choir of the Alabama State College at Montgomery have returned to the campus after a tour which took them into Frankfort, Kentucky, Dayton, Yellow Springs, Wilberforce, and Cleveland, Ohio, and to Detroit, Michigan. Under the direction of Frederick D. Hall, well-known conductor and arranger, the group received wide acclaim for its performances in all of the cities where it appeared. The choir will present its annual program of Christmas music in two performances at the college December 11. Director Hall will be assisted at the piano by Mrs. Mildred Greenwood Hall and by Mrs. Altona Trent Johns.
August 31, 1951 (WVSC archives) President Davis of West Virginia State College wired Rev. Johns in Montgomery. "Have secured Reverend Moses Newsome's permission to invite you to address our faculty and students here at seven o'clock on Sunday evening, September 16th. Wire collect if you will accept this invitation to speak for us."
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