Several years ago, actor James Earl Jones portrayed civil rights hero Rev. Vernon Johns. Johns was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1947-1952 and preceded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor. Johns did not shy away from controversy and the plight of blacks in his city. After a series of abusive events by the Montgomery Police Department, Johns used his pulpit to speak out and try to organize the community.
But, one particular sermon he gave led to his arrest. A Black man running down the street was killed by a White man with a shotgun. The White man claimed that, “If he was running, he must have done something.” It was the second week of May in 1949. He put up on the church sign the title for the Sunday’s upcoming service, “It’s safe to murder Negroes.”
Johns said during that sermon:
“I just want to remind you what the clearest and simplest of these great Ten Commandments is: Thou shalt not kill. The Birmingham paper says that you have a better chance in 1948 of being murdered in Alabama than anywhere in the U.S. A lot of the people doing the killing are the police officers who should know the law as well as anybody.
But you know there is no justifiable homicide. God never spoke about justifiable homicide. He said Thou shalt not kill. He didn’t say thou shalt not kill, unless you’ve got an excuse. He didn’t say thou shalt not kill, unless you are a police officer. And he most assuredly did not say thou shalt not kill, unless you’re White.
I’ll tell you why it’s safe to murder Negroes. Because Negroes stand by and let it happen. Do you know what occurred to me as I watched that cross burning in front of the church? When the Klan burns a cross it’s a message. The next step is lynching.”
Police arrested Johns in front of the congregation and he was charged with incitement for his remarks that Sunday. His words seem to still ring true 68 years later as White police officer Michael Slager walked out of court yesterday after a mistrial in the shooting of unarmed Black male, Walter Scott. One holdout juror stated in a note during the trial “I cannot in good conscience consider a guilty verdict … I cannot and will not change my mind.”
A shocking statement since video showed Scott being shot eight times by Slager as he was running away. Slager is seen planting evidence at the scene and later made false statements. But it didn’t matter to this White male juror because in 2016 it is still safe to murder Negroes in South Carolina.
This is the same state where avowed White supremacist Dylan Roof in June 2015 was treated to a Burger King meal after killing nine Black parishioners at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Opening statements for his federal death penalty trial will start on Wednesday after a series of legal maneuvers by Roof. Earlier this month his defense team had a competency hearing to determine if Roof could stand trial for his crimes. A judge ruled against the lawyers and stated that Roof was “highly intelligent.” Roof was allowed to act in his own defense and even had a chance to question potential jurors during the pre-trial phase.
Black America is now looking to South Carolina to disprove the words of Rev. Johns.