Vernon Johns

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Vernon Johns
Born (1892-04-22)April 22, 1892
Darlington Heights, Virginia
Died June 11, 1965(1965-06-11) (aged 73)
Washington, D.C.
Alma mater Oberlin Seminary, University of Chicago
Movement African-American Civil Rights Movement
Spouse(s) Altona Trent
Children Six children

Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) was an American minister and civil rights leader who was active in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans from the 1920s. At times he has been rated as one of the three greatest African-American preachers, along with Mordecai Johnson and Howard Thurman.

He is considered by some as the father of the American Civil Rights Movement, having laid the foundation on which Martin Luther King, Jr. and others would build. He was Dr. King's predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1947 to 1952, and a mentor of Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and many others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Johns was born in Darlington Heights, Prince Edward County, Virginia. Three of his grandparents were slaves. His paternal grandfather had been hanged for killing his master. Johns maternal grandfather was a Mr. Prince. Prince had a long-standing relationship with Johns maternal grandmother, and served prison time for killing a man who tried to rape her. After her mother died, Johns' mother Sallie Prince was raised by the white wife of her father, although the fact that he was actually her father was not generally acknowledged.[1]

In 1915, Johns graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary and College.[2] He then attended the Oberlin Seminary, where he studied with classmate Robert M. Hutchins.[3] While at Oberlin, Johns was highly respected by both his classmates and the faculty and was chosen to give the annual student oration. After graduating from Oberlin in 1918, he attended the University of Chicago's graduate school of theology.[4]

After studying at the University of Chicago, Johns moved between various congregations in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In 1926, he was the first African-American to have his work published in Best Sermons of the Year.[5]

In 1927, Johns married Altona Trent. She was a pianist and music teacher who became a professor at what is now Alabama State University. It was due to her connection to ASU that she was able to influence Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to hire Johns as pastor in October 1948.[6] On one occasion, he paid his bus fare and was directed to the back, but refused to sit there and demanded his money back;[7] he ruffled some feathers among his middle-class congregation by selling his farm produce from outside the church building.[8]

In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the Robert Moton School was the scene of a student strike for better conditions in 1951. One student leader, Barbara Rose Johns was the niece of Vernon Johns. Though he was in Montgomery at the time of the student strike, many report that he was influential in giving advice. His wife was a former teacher in the Robert Moton High School, and he still had numerous familial ties in the community of Farmville and the surrounding area. The Johns family knew the social politics of the area. The local NAACP chapter saw an opportunity to push for change and helped the students continue the fight after the ten day strike was over. This case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, would be combined into others and brought to the U.S. Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education.

Vernon Johns died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C. on June 11, 1965 at age 73.


A television film was made in 1994 called Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story, written by Leslie Lee and Kevin Arkadie, based on an unpublished biography by Henry W. Powell of The Vernon Johns Society. The motion picture was directed by Kenneth Fink and stars James Earl Jones in the title role. Former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has long expressed an interest in African-American history, was the film's co-executive producer.[9]

David Anderson Elementary School in Petersburg, Virginia, was renamed Vernon Johns Middle School; in 2009 it became the junior high school for the city school system.[citation needed]

See also

External links


  1. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 7
  2. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle entry on Johns
  3. Oberlin article on Johns
  4. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, at 9 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks 1988).
  5. Oberlin biography of Johns
  6. Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 6-7
  7. Wally G. Vaughan, ed. (1999). Reflections on our Pastor. Richard W. Wills. Dover: Majority Press. pp. 45–47. ISBN 9780912469348.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. bio of Johns
  9. Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>