Vernon Johns

Vernon Johns Biography

Pastor, Civil Rights Activist (1892–1965)
A brilliant thinker, Vernon Johns was a pastor and activist who was the predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.


Born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, on April 22, 1892, Vernon Johns earned his divinity degree from Oberlin College. Having an unorthodox style that merged his rural upbringing with intellectual acumen, he became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, highlighted by his community activism and challenges to the status quo. Succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr., Johns died on April 11, 1965.

Education and Early Career

Vernon Napoleon Johns was born in Darlington Heights, part of Prince Edward County, Virginia, on April 22, 1892, with a complex multiracial family history. Johns worked on the farm growing up and was a voracious reader and learner of Western classical thought, attending the Boydton Institute and Virginia Theological Seminary and College.

Though allegedly expelled from his previous institution, Johns went on to attend Oberlin College's seminary and became the top student of his class, giving the famed Memorial Arch talk and graduating in 1918 with his divinity degree. He took on a variety of teaching and ministry work over the ensuing decades, becoming one of the most well-known African-American religious leaders of the era who was also out of the box, having a passion for traveling without being beholden to his educational background.

In 1927, Johns wed Altona Trent, a classical pianist, teacher and scholar who would also author music books. The couple went on to have three sons and three daughters.

Becomes Dexter Avenue Pastor

In 1948, after a mesmerizing trial sermon, Johns became the 19th pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of his four years there, Johns displayed a challenging, at times volatile temperament that put him at odds with much of the congregation, whom he took to task for often being too invested in social status.

Johns could speak and read multiple languages, being particularly fond of Greek, and was known to recite lengthy literary and scriptural passages at will as he had a photographic memory. His intellectual prowess, including a love of poetry and military histories, was balanced for a love of working the land, and he at times appeared on the pulpit in outdoorsy attire or outside of church hawking produce and food stuffs.

Johns was a community activist as well, helping African-American girls who had been raped by white men accuse their attackers to the authorities. He was also involved in desegregation work, refusing to comply with racist bus policies and at one point ordering a sandwich and drink from a white restaurant, being chased out practically by gunpoint. His sermons could be in-your-face as well, with titles connecting to oppressive, violent social dynamics faced by African Americans.

His niece, Barbara Johns, who lived with his immediate family for a time, was also at the helm of one of the suits involved in the historical 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

Succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr.

With a tumultuous history with Dexter Avenue and having already put in for his resignation multiple times, John's fifth resignation was accepted by the church in 1953. He was eventually succeeded there by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Johns continued with his farm work and later directed the Maryland Baptist Center and helmed Second Century Magazine in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation. Prominent civil rights leaders like King and Ralph D. Abernathy also looked to Johns for sustenance and guidance. He died on April 11, 1965, in Washington, D.C.

Historian Ralph E. Luker has written much about Johns's life and work, and Taylor Branch profiled Johns in his book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988). Actor James Earl Jones also portrayed Johns in a notable 1994 television film, The Road to Freedom.

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