Dr. Vernon Johns was an American minister, born in Virginia in 1892. He graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary and College in 1915 (AB) and earned a BD from Oberlin College three years later. He was a minister at several black churches in the South and a pioneer in the civil rights movement. He is best known as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama from 1947-1952. He was succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Johns was widely known in the black community for his intellect and his highly controversial and outspoken sermons on race relations, which were ahead of his time. After graduating from Oberlin in 1918, he attended the University of Chicago’s graduate school of theology. After studying at the University of Chicago, Dr. 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.
Dr. Johns didn’t keep quiet about racial issues and he was critical of both black and whites in Montgomery. He challenged his congregation to not sit by and allow these things to happen to their race. He once asked for a refund of his bus fare when he wasn’t allowed to sit in the white section and got it back. He often ruffled the feathers of his congregation with his radical sermons and selling produce in front of the church. In May 1953, he was forced to resign as pastor in Montgomery. He returned to his family farm, where he spent the rest of his life. Dr. Vernon Johns died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 1965, at age 73.
A television movie was made in 1994 called Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story, starring one of my favorite actors, James Earl Jones in the title role. The movie was written by Leslie Lee and Kevin Arkadie, based on an unpublished biography by Henry W. Powell of The Vernon Johns Society.