Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 112 / Number 4
Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns
- By Ralph E. Luker, pp. 372–418
Prince Edward County's Vernon Johns (1892–1965) was a powerful figure in the mid—twentieth-century Afro-Baptist pulpit, but nowhere more celebrated than in the circle of preachers who organized and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a legendary figure to Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, and many other preachers who spearheaded the civil rights movement. Johns was legendary, in part, because he wove a legend out of his own traumatic family history. The legend transfigured tragic events and ordinary mortals into historic action and heroic figures. The most important accounts of his life—Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Parting the Waters (1989) and Kenneth Fink's made-for-television film The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story (1994)—report the legend as Johns's family and his friends at SCLC recalled it.
The reality is far more difficult, because there was a white, slave-owning grandfather, who exploited and probably murdered Vernon Johns's grandmother of color. When he was not charged with that murder, the grandfather lived to kill again, this time when Johns was a small boy in rural Prince Edward. Charged and convicted this time for the murder of a white field hand, the grandfather was sentenced to death by hanging. The governor commuted that sentence, but the old man spent his last quarter century in a Virginia prison. Johns would spend the rest of his life trying to make sense of the tangle of race, sex, and violence that he inherited. Slowly, his reflections on Scripture and the power of dreams transformed his family's experience into a powerful argument for racial self-defense. In his maturity, Vernon Johns was one of the few figures who played a role in both the litigation leading to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott's non-violent direct action, but the legend of Vernon Johns figured as the alternative to Martin Luther King's and SCLC's commitment to non-violent civil disobedience.