"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Civil Rights Pioneer Vernon Johns on John Brown the Abolitionist1

Historian Ralph E. Luker has devoted his scholarly energies in recent years to preparing a critical edition of the essays, sermons, and speeches of Civil Rights leader Vernon Johns. As Luker observes, many people do not even know about Johns' pioneer role in the modern Civil Rights movement, although he was, in Luker's words, "a legendary figure in the circle of Martin Luther King and the others at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Johns preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and mentored Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and a host of others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Facing a dearth of primary materials (Johns' papers were twice lost in fires), Luker, a distinguished and award-winning scholar, conducted "a massive search for whatever survived elsewhere in print, manuscript, and tape recordings," gathering an extensive amount of material over several years. Among the materials he recovered were two series of newspaper columns in black newspapers, especially in the Montgomery [Alabama] Advertiser.

One of Johns' published letters recovered by Luker related to a regular column written by Judge Walter B. Jones,2 a leading spirit in Alabama's racist government and a great enemy of the Civil Rights movement in his state. In the August 7, 1950 edition of the Advertiser, Judge Jones had published an article entitled, "Memories of John Brown." According to Luker, Jones opined that John Brown was "one of the ugliest characters in American history," who "hated slavery and he hated anybody who owned slaves." Citing Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 in Kansas and the raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, Jones firmly renounced the pro-Brown sentiments of leading writers after Brown's death, arguing that slavery in 1859 was yet sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution, having roots in most of the states, and that "thousands of the finest people in the country owned slaves."

The Reverend Johns, then the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, promptly prepared a rejoinder to this hostile attack on Brown, which Luker happily imagines as having been read over morning coffee by Montgomery's white population. He provides the response, written on August 8, as it appeared in print:

Editor, Montgomery Advertiser:

It is fortunate for John Brown's memory that Judge Walter Jones finished his article today on one of the "ugliest characters in American history" with an array of witnesses to his character on the other side. Emerson, Alcott, Longfellow, Greeley, Thoreau, with one foreigner of Victor Hugo's proportion, thrown in – should weigh pretty well on the other end; especially since the Judge's opinion is "off the bench."3

A little prophecy of Emerson's will aid us in an appraisal of John Brown's place in history. The morning after John Brown was hanged, Emerson entered in his Journal "The Emancipation of slaves is nearer by a hundred years." American slavery was 239 years old that morning. Two years later, an army was marching, composed of Northerners and Southerners to the strains of "John Brown's Body Lies A Mouldering in The Clay – His Soul Is Marching On." Six years later, the slave was free!

John Brown also made an amazing prophecy concerning his sacrifice. A hundred thugs had been hired at $1.00 each (with money raised by a New England minister) to overpower the few guards at Charlestown and release Brown. When a representative of the movement conferred with him, he listened to the proposal and answered: "If the doors of this jail were left open, and unguarded, I would not leave. I am more good to my cause by hanging now than any other way." The Judge's article makes much of John Brown's brutality in Kansas, where blood answered blood in a struggle to make new soil slave or keep it free. But how does the blood drawn for freedom by old Brown's cutlass bulk against the blood drawn by the lash through 24 decades to [make?] slavery what it was? And you could not put an end to slavery by sprinkling rose water on Simon Legree's whiskers.

Would it not be better for North and South – white and black – to accept the results of the Civil War as a finished fact and give our joint attention to this Korean [War] business? May we close now with sincere gratitude to Almighty God that "John Brown just hated slavery" and pray that all of us in this democracy, especially judges, may come to hate slavery and love freedom!

Vernon Johns, Minister
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

While Johns probably held a more admiring view of Brown, his response to the judge's column is deft and brilliant. After all, the pressing issue in 1950 was not a scholarly defense of Brown, but the struggle against de jure segregation and systemic racism in Alabama and the rest of the South--deeply rooted in the "Lost Cause" sympathies of political leaders like Judge Jones. The Reverend understood that to defend Brown would have been a waste of time; the real issue was that Southern white leaders were still mired in the racist commitments of the past--still upholding the perspective of the slaveholding elite that had driven the South to ruin by secession in 1861.

Johns assumes the apologetic of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hugo could not be easily overturned by Brown's detractors, and since Judge Jones himself had cited them in his polemic, Johns merely redirected the force of the blow back to Jones and his ilk: slavery had been overturned as Brown himself had predicted, and the chorus of his posthumous admirers merely underscored what was undeniable--by committing himself in life and death to the end of slavery, it was John Brown who achieved immortality, not the myriad thugs and oppressors who had invested their lives in the advancement of slavery.

Johns' further response to Judge Jones would well suit today's marginal defenders of the Confederacy, including that handful of contemptible Southern Calvinists who have tragically married the excellencies of Protestant Reformation theology to their tragic, romanticized devotion to the "Lost Cause." "You could not put an end to slavery by sprinkling rose water on Simon Legree's whiskers," Johns admonished. The fact of slavery's criminality, violence, and immorality cannot be denied, and anyone who criticizes Brown for "breaking the law," whether in 1859, 1959, or today is rationally obtuse and perhaps morally depraved, including the self-styled Southern Calvinist gentlemen who glorify pro-slavery theologians and Confederate generals.

It is clear that Judge Jones, like so many of his generation and--sadly--not a few today in this nation, did not love freedom and justice, but only his version of it, which placed white people at the human center and blacks and other people of color on the margins of secondary humanity. All such men and women have warped value systems and invariably react against John Brown precisely because he represented a position contrary to their idolatrous devotion to white supremacy.

As far as Judge Jones is concerned, let it be clear that this man was no friend of humanity, being an ally only to "white" people of his peculiar subculture. Besides his essential role in using his energies and talents to undermine the Civil Rights movement, Jones may also be remembered as editing a book of Confederate War Poems in 1959; it was Jones too who recovered the "True Gentlemen" creed of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity as having been written by John Wayland in a contest for the Baltimore Sun in 1899.4 That creed states that a "true gentleman's"
conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.
Ironically, Judge Jones has done John Brown the abolitionist a good turn after all. By tracing and recovering this description of the "True Gentleman," Jones has provided history with an excellent commentary befitting John Brown, who was a true gentleman and the cream of 19th century Christian society. It was Brown, not his pro-slavery counterparts and their stubborn descendants, who represents the most humble, self-sacrificing, and virtuous character. Had Jones been able to clear the smut of prejudice and bigotry from his eyes, he might have seen Brown in a different light. Of course such prejudice is not a southern thing as it turns out. It is all too often typical of northern whites as well as southerners. John Brown did not hate the South, nor was he hateful of people who held slaves. He hated slavery and gave his life to end it. But many whites still hate Brown either out of ignorance or malice or both. The only realistic basis for this hatred--as the Rev. Vernon Johns recognized--is that such people also hate the divine principles of justice and equality.--LD

See Ralph E. Luker’s website at: http://www.ralphluker.com/vjohns/baptist.html


1Source: Ralph E. Luker, “Documenting Vernon Johns,” History News Network [George Mason University], October 4, 2005, an on-line source retrieved on April 28, 2007 from: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/16626.html

2Luker provides the following information on Walter B. Jones (1888-1963): son of Alabama Governor and United States District Judge, Thomas Goode Jones. Walter Jones served in Alabama's state legislature, on Montgomery's city commission and on Alabama's circuit bench for many decades before his death. He was a long-time columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser, a state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and editor of the Alabama Bible Society Quarterly. As a special judge in 1954, Jones presided over the cleanup of corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, and became a close advisor to state Attorney General John Patterson. He suggested to Patterson that the state prosecute the NAACP for failing to register as an out-of-state corporation, presided at proceedings that shut down the NAACP in the state for eight years and presided over proceedings in the landmark case, Sullivan v. New York Times, that eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. In 1956, a dissident Democratic elector for Alabama cast one electoral vote for Walter B. Jones for President of the United States.

3Luker informs us that Jones' regular column was entitled "Off the Bench."

4See Jones, Walter Burgwyn, 1888-1963, from Grove's Library of Alabama Lives. Auburn University Libraries website, retrieved on Apr 28, 2007 from: http://www.lib.auburn.edu/madd/docs/ala_authors/j.html;

“Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” Wikipedia, retrieved on Apr 28, 2007 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigma_Alpha_Epsilon.