Rev. Vernon Johns was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL from 1948-1952. In the 1940s he was considered among the top black preachers of the time along with the likes of Howard Thurman.
Johns preached incessantly about civil rights in one of his most remembered phrases Johns recounted, "No man is fit to be alive until he has something for which he would die." Johns did not accept segregation and he did not understand why other preachers in the Montgomery area were not as vocal as he was on the subject.
Johns was known to lambast his own congregation for being too conscious of status and he was one of the first ministers in the area to challenge racial segregation. He was fond of speaking his mind and not happy with people who were happy with the status quo.
He talked to his well off black congregation about classism. He felt class distinctions were not only black and white but that there was also an economic inequality among blacks. Johns sided with the those of less privilege and often irritated his congregation by growing and selling his own vegetables while dressed in his favorite set of overalls. Johns felt if blacks could become economically independent of whites, blacks as one community would eventually be accepted by whites because of black economic power.
Johns also parted ways with his congregation over the music of the church. Johns wanted a service filled with the old Negro sprituals. The Dexter congregation wanted what they considered more conservative music.
A brilliant orator in both Latin and Greek, many of his upper-middle class parishioners felt Johns was militant. One day when Johns had gotten on a Montgomery bus the bus driver told him he had to get off the bus and get back on in back. Johns' retort was "Well give me my money back" and he got off.
Johns would not back down from confrontation and was known to show up in restaraunts and other local establishments demanding service. He agitated local officials by often preaching sermons on events that had happened in the community. Titles such as "Segregation after Death", "Constructive Homicide", and "When the Rapist is White," became the norm for Johns. One of the most inflamatory sermons to be preached was titled "It is safe to kill Negroes in Montgomery." Johns not only preached the sermons he advertised them on the churches sign out front of the church. Crosses were burned outside the church and the glass on the church sign was destroyed on more than one ocassion.
This intransigence by Johns led him to several appearances in front of the local police chief and local judges often on charges of inciting people to riot.
Johns' attitude which seemed to be one of "Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" and his non-pretentious style eventually led to his ouster as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1952. In later years, the board of deacons were sure they had found a fine, relatively quiet young man to take his place who would not stir things up. Little did they know that Vernon Johns had been like John the Baptist. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ, Vernon Johns had laid the groundwork for the church's new preacher - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.