Vernon Johns was a minister and civil rights activist. He is most remembered for his time at Dexter Baptist Church, shortly before his successor, Martin Luther King Jr. (Courtesy of Blackpast.org)

By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor

Before Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, Vernon Johns had something to say. The southern preacher, most known for his pastoral leadership at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. before passing the torch to Martin Luther King Jr. Johns was outspoken and unapologetically pro-Black at a time when it wasn’t popular to be, especially for members of the church. 

Johns was born in rural Prince Edward’s County, Va. on April 22, 1892, the same year that the AFRO was founded by John Henry Murphy in Baltimore. The son of a farmer and preacher, he spent his days working the farm and educating himself while doing so. According to an article by an Oberlin College alumna, Johns’ parents didn’t have money to send him to school and some say that he could be seen plowing and reading on the farm. 

He was naturally brilliant and largely self taught, teaching himself Greek, Hebrew, Latin and German. He was said to have a photographic memory and could recite long biblical passages, proving helpful in his studies at Virginia Theological Seminary and College and Oberlin Seminary. 

After graduating from seminary, Johns married Altona Trent, a music teacher who would later become a professor at Alabama State University. Together they had six children. 

Although he had a family, Johns liked living life on the road, often gone for months at a time preaching and peddling. He liked traveling light and helping where help was needed. He had good intentions, but his methods were seen as unorthodox to other Blacks. It wasn’t atypical to see Johns preaching from the pulpit in his dirt-stained overalls, fresh from plowing the fields. 

Because of this, and his temper of course, Johns became a misfit, hopping from church to church and making ends meet in between. He pastored West Virginia’s First Baptist Church, followed by Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. before landing on what would be one of his most memorable roles at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

Johns was a pioneer through and through. He was truly a man before his time. Before the Civil Rights Movement, topics like racism, inequality and injustice were not discussed in the pulpit. And if they were, they certainly were not published in the newspapers for all to see. This didn’t sit well with Johns, who was appalled that there weren’t any Black preacher sermons being published. He sent sermons from notable preachers to various publishing houses and they were all denied. It wasn’t until Johns submitted a sermon of his own, called “Transfigured Moments,” that he became the first Black preacher to have his work published as the best sermon of the year in 1926. 

Even before Rosa Parks’ revolutionary resistance, Johns paid his bus fare and after being directed to the coloreds only section at the back of the bus, he demanded his money back. He even pushed for having White men indicted for the rape of Black girls, calling for their immediately arrest. 

In Montgomery, Johns faced more of the same criticism from his congregation. He condemned the people of Montgomery, both Black and White, for being consumers who were too good for hard labor and he accused the Blacks for “doing nothing” while innocent Blacks get killed daily. In the end, Johns was just too radical for the Black-elite who controlled the baptist church. After his resignation, the church made room for a pastor who was a little more palatable: Martin Luther King Jr. 

After resigning from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Johns never pastored again but remained in leadership. In the mid 50s, Johns became the director of the Maryland Baptist Center in Baltimore before resigning shortly after for shaming White baptist preacher’s inaction toward race equality. 

Johns isn’t one of the names mentioned when you read about the Civil Rights Movement, but key leaders in the movement like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy sought counsel from him. After a full life of farming, teaching and preaching Johns died in 1965 at the age of 73.