I was 19 years old when I learned of Vernon Johns and it was from this excellent movie. Up until then, I thought I was pretty familiar with most of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The evening I watched this film--and after realizing that neither of my parents, who came of age right in the middle of the movement knew about him--was the evening I learned that I was only familiar with what others chose to teach me.
There was never a more frustrating time--during my stint in kid prison--than Black history month. Every year, we little inmates were given a steady diet of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson. Over and over and over again as though they were the only three who made any real moves towards civil rights for Black Americans. You would think Southern Blacks sat in pathological complacency until these three gave them instructions. Not much was taught about Medgar Evers or Malcolm X.
And we were never told about Vernon Johns who was Pastor at Dexter Ave. directly before Martin Luther King Jr. Reverend Johns planted the seed for Dr. King so that by the time he came along, the people were already fired up and ready to move mountains.
I was wondering the other night why he was never part of my kid prison curriculum. Was he too bold, too abrasive? Was Martin Luther King Jr. more palatable for the masses? Or did he just have more political connections? Just how does this work?
There were many people who were part of this historic movement that we are never going to learn about. Maybe that is the way they wanted. Civil Rights is hardly about feelings or accolades, but rather doing what is most kind and fair, without even thinking twice about it. As Vernon Johns father would say...
"When you see a good fight, get in it."