APRIL 22, 1892

Fiery civil rights pioneer Vernon Johns was born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, in Prince Edward County. He taught himself German and other languages so well that when the dean of Oberlin College handed him a book of German scripture, Johns easily passed, won admission and became the top student at Oberlin College. 

In 1948, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, hired Johns, who mesmerized the crowd with his photographic memory of scripture. But he butted heads with the middle-class congregation when he chastised members for disliking muddy manual labor, selling cabbages, hams and watermelons on the streets near the state capitol. He pressed civil rights issues, helping black rape victims bring their cases to authorities, ordering a meal from a white restaurant and refusing to sit in the back of a bus. 

No one in the congregation followed his lead, and turmoil continued to rise between the pastor and his parishioners. In May 1953, he resigned, returning to his family farm. His successor? A young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. 

James Earl Jones portrayed the eccentric pastor in the 1994 TV film, “Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story”, and historian Taylor Branch profiled Johns in his Pulitzer-winning “Parting the Waters; America in the King Years 1954-63”.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.