Rev. Vernon Johns was an activist and pastor who was known for his soaring intellectual sermons and eccentric style. Johns was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and is considered by many as the father of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Vernon Napoleon Johns was born April 22, 1892 in Darlington Heights, Va. Three of his grandparents were slaves and according to lore, his paternal grandfather killed his master and was hanged for it. Johns’ maternal grandfather served time in prison for killing a white man who tried to rape Johns’ maternal grandfather.
The family was too poor to send Johns to school but he taught himself and became a voracious reader. Johns learned several languages during this period, which helped him when he entered Oberlin Seminary. There, he became a stellar student. He then attended the University of Chicago’s graduate school of theology ahead of working as a pastor for several churches between Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
In 1926, Johns was the first African-American to have his work published in the book, Best Sermons Of The Year. The following year, he wed pianist and teacher Altona Trent, who worked at what would eventually become Alabama State University. It was Johns’ wife that helped forge the connection that would lead him to preaching at Dexter Avenue.