Taylor Branch lifted the Rev. Vernon Johns out of historical obscurity when he published his famous tome on the modern Civil Rights era Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 when he opened the book with the biography of him. His major contribution to the Civil Rights movement as a whole was his pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as the immediate predecessor to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He pastored the church from 1948 until 1952 after he was forced out, but all indications point to the fact that his leadership raised the cultural and political consciousness of the congregation that prepared them for King as their pastor and to lead the city in the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott that changed the course of human events.
His story prompted an ABC special in 1989 and a made for TV movie “The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story” in 1994 starring James Earl Jones. On a lark, I just was googling him to see if anything new turned up aside from the unpublished biography that’s been online since my college days that I used in my African American History class to compare him with that of Nat Turner (and Ms. Wynn gave me a doggone 89% on that paper, I was too mad). And I discovered that a film student, Solomon Shadrach Turner, at Johns’ alma mater Oberlin College had done a documentary on trying to recreate what Oberlin looked like when Johns graduated in 1918. I thought it was a well produced documentary that did illuminate some things that I didn’t know about Oberlin. The image of Oberlin nationwide has always been the college that admitted blacks from early on, but the stories of the racism and discrimination of the students admitted almost never gets told.
And for my own extra commentary, the fact that two students didn’t know who James Earl Jones was — not even from his famous “Luke, I am your father” — proves why I’m glad I went to an HBCU!
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL