Johns, civil rights forerunner, gets overdue attention

January 20, 1994|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,Chicago Tribune Book Editor Tim Warren contributed to this story.

Before there was the Rev. Martin Luther King, there was the Rev. Vernon Johns.

A visionary, fire-breathing Baptist preacher in segregationist Montgomery, Ala., in the early 1950s, Johns helped ignite the tinder of the civil rights movement that ultimately would transfix and change the nation.

But before his dreams were realized, he was turned upon and rejected by his own people, ending his days unknown and unsung. Ironically, the congregation that cast off Johns as too radical and dangerous replaced him with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher who eventually would prove to hold simi- lar ideals and have a far better grasp of the tools of publicity.

Johns' astonishing and inspiring story has been made into "The Vernon Johns Story" (airing tonight at 8 on WNUV, Channel 54, and at 11:30 p.m. Saturday on WJLA, Channel 7). The film stars James Earl Jones in the title role, with basketball-legend-turned-actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as an executive producer.

Baltimore author Taylor Branch first brought to light Johns' story, devoting the first chapter of his 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Parting the Waters," to the civil rights leader.

"It was very hard, because there wasn't anything written about him," Mr. Branch said. "You couldn't find out anything about him in the library. Black history of that time is lost -- Johns was almost an invisible person. I had to find relatives, friends and old church people to talk to. He was a kind of folk creation -- he comes out of folk history."

Mr. Branch said he did not work on "The Vernon Johns Story," but "Parting the Waters" is acknowledged as a source for the movie. "I thought the movie was terrific, and James Earl Jones' performance is very powerful," he said.

"I think this film will open some eyes and give everyone someone new to examine and appreciate," Mr. Abdul-Jabbar said. "He's [Johns] an American hero. This could only have happened in America. He was a unique individual."

In the early 1950s, Johns was pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, known for the relative affluence and conservatism of its all-black congregation. With an oratorical style said to be spellbinding, Johns urged the members of his flock to break out of their complacency and acceptance of segregation and discrimination. Preaching radical notions of social change and black independence, he called upon them to use their economic power against the white establishment to provoke change.

A similar message was preached by a Johns contemporary -- the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell -- in organizing a more publicized and successful boycott of white-owned 125th Street stores in New York's Harlem about the same time. Dr. King eventually would employ these means in leading the Montgomery bus boycott later in the decade.

But Johns, who grew and sold vegetables to his community to encourage revolt against white-owned stores, alarmed his elders with the power and fury of his rhetoric. He was fired, and replaced with the seemingly more circumspect and better behaved young King.

"The difference between Johns and King was that King was the kind of a leader who made sure he had a following," said Mr. Jones, echoing remarks by director Kenneth Fink. "He didn't do a march unless he had a whole gang behind him. Johns was a trailblazer; he didn't care if there was anybody behind him or not -- and he never got anywhere. But I think the reason we don't know about him is that the media hadn't discovered him."

From Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's perspective, "Dr. King had the benefit of seeing the ball carried over the goal line. That is something that Dr. Johns never lived to see exactly happen, although he saw it in motion. He died in 1966, so he saw what was coming. He saw the transformation in 15 years from 1951 to when he died. That was tremendous."

"The Vernon Johns Story" was filmed last fall, mostly in Richmond and Petersburg, Va., where Johns also had a church. Relatives and friends of the civil rights advocate worked as extras in the movie.

For Mr. Jones, portraying Johns "was the most grueling thing I've ever done, outside of 'The Great White Hope' and 'Fences.' There wasn't a page [of the script] that didn't have Vernon Johns' name on it, either in dialogue or some kind of action."

Mr. Jones said, however, that he didn't find the production emotionally exhausting, though the depths of feeling reached are tremendous and the story is essentially a form of tragedy.

"That gives an actor energy," he said. "That's fuel, and my emotional involvement was just that I loved this man, and I fell in vTC love listening to the one clearly recorded speech he made -- a sermon called 'The Romance of Death,' that he gave in Washington at Howard University. It was one of the most beautiful statements I ever heard. It makes me religious. It makes me understand Christianity, and nobody else has been able to do that."

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