Rated PG. Running time 1 hour 40 min.
Fight the good fight of faith…
1 Timothy 6:12a
If you see a good fight, get in it!
Rev. Dr. Vernon Johns
Moses had the patriarchs, Jesus had John the Baptist, and Martin Luther King Jr., had Vernon Johns. Few have heard of Vernon Johns, but thanks to this TV film starring James Earl Jones as the civil rights pioneer, a growing number of people will come to appreciate what a great leader he was, some even calling him the Father of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Certainly, as this film shows, he was an unsung and unappreciated fighter for justice.
Vernon Johns came to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1948, where he soon saw that the deacons and many members were more interested in maintaining their social and economic positions than in fighting for justice. They thought of themselves as the cream of the crop of “Negroes,” looking down on the working class people to whom Vernon Johns reached out. He enjoyed donning overalls to work in his garden and then selling the produce right outside the church, much to the discomfort of some of his members.
Vernon’s blunt language in the pulpit brought far greater discomfort to many. We hear him speak of a white man who was fined for shooting a rabbit out of season. But it’s safe to murder Negroes. A rabbit is better off than a Negro because in Alabama niggers are always in season!” The camera cuts to quick shot of one of the deacon’s shocked face.
The film is filled with such moments, Johns at times as upset over his people’s hesitancy to join him in opposing injustice, wrongs that includes the rape of young women, the mistreatment of African Americans on the segregated busses, and the daily insults hurled at his people. He himself pleads on a bus with the black passengers to stop accepting the indignities of bus segregation, but they sit in silence. He is with his daughter, and makes her get off with him. Indeed he has told his children that they will walk to school rather than ride the bus. A sequence in which Johns is taking a young woman raped by white cops to a hospital is especially harrowing. The nurse and doctor at the white hospital turn them away, so the party has to get back in the car and drive to a “Negro hospital” in another town. They are stopped for speeding by an arrogant white cop who says that the girl looks fine to him. He enjoys humiliating Johns by calling him boy and making him respond with “sir.” Several times we see a close-up of John’s hand reaching for a tire iron, but he manages to hold in his rage unti, after what seems like a terribly long time, he is allowed to drive on.
James Earl Jones gives a magnificent performance as the preacher unable to keep quiet in the face of injustice. This film spotlights a man who deserves to be honored.
The film is available not only on DVD but also for free on On YouTube a thttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRuZF7LMXcc
Questions For Reflection/Discussion
- What image of the church do people hold? What image does Vernon Johns project when he meets the deacons? Which is closer to that of the prophets and Jesus?
- What do you think of Vernon Johns’ choice for his first sermon, the Parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 17:19-31)? Could he have been more “diplomatic”? Or is it better for a pastor-candidate to layout his views at the beginning of a potential ministry? Compare Johns’ choice with Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4).
- In the scene in which Johns is preaching his trial sermon for the committee that has come to hear him: compare Johns’ hymn preference, “Go Down, Moses,” to that of his pianist, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Why does she refuse to switch to the song of his choice? Who is it that gives Johns a knowing glance, reminding him that he should choose his battles and give in on this one How do our hymn preferences reveal our theology and social conscience? How do hymns help shape us during our early years of faith formation? What are your “Top Ten” hymns? What are their themes? Are they mainly personal, or do some of them deal with social justice concerns? What role will music play in the Civil Rights movement that Vernon Johns helped launch? (A good film that shows this in a most dramatic way is Freedom Song, set in 1963 when a few SNCC workers bring their voting rights campaign to a small Mississippi town.
- What do you learn of the bus situation in Montgomery? What do you think of Johns’ decision to make his daughter walk to school? Is this fair?
- How does the mother of the murdered son get more than she bargained for when she came to Vernon Johns and asked him to pray for her son? What do you think of his “boat rocker” sermon? Is his charge fair that everyone silent about the crime is guilty of murder? Was this the problem of the church in 1930’s Germany concerning Nazi teaching and treatment of the Jews? Of the white church in America in America concerning Jim Crow laws and physical harassment of blacks?
- Which of the many dramatic encounters Pastor Johns has with racism made the most impression on you, and why?
Lunch scene with Coach Hill
On the bus with his daughter
His meeting with the white judge.
Selling produce outside church
His taking the rape victim to the white hospital
His being stopped and harassed by the cop while taking the victim to a distant “Negro” hospital
- Which of his sermons hit you the hardest: The sermon on economics, or “When the Rapist is White,” or “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes”? Again, could he have been more “diplomatic”? What is the effect of his sermons on his listeners? On the community?
- How is the support of his wife and daughter important? Why does “Baby Dee” rebel for a while? What must it have been like for her to be the daughter of such a man?
- How did you feel about the death of Coach Hill? Who is responsible for his death? How can the singing of a hymn be an act of defiance?
10. What do you think of the irony at the end? How was Johns probably crucial in preparing the way for Dr. King. In what ways was he “a voice crying in the wilderness”?