Major Johns – SCLC Field Director and Civil Rights Hero

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

During the summer of 1965, one of my favorite leaders was Major Johns. He was one of our SCLC field directors who was strict with his young recruits and who always looked out for us. Born and raised in Plaquemine, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he has scarcely been mentioned in books until the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”

In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) de-segregation drive. When they got out of jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. According to authors of “A More Noble Cause” Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P.Tureaud Jr., Major Johns was the chief strategist for the walk outs. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights leaders were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.

Jesse Smith, was a teenager who had shown Luke and me around Lower Peachtree in 1965. He recalls Major spending time at their family home and at his father Rev. Smith’s church. “Major Johns, once in while he would talk about the black history of America —Crispus Attucks and all that. He was so inspiring. He’d quote from the Constitution about the right of the people to form or abolish this kind of government. There was so much power in his words; that man could speak!”

Major served in Wilcox County for more than six months in 1965 and in many other areas before returning to Louisiana where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a divinity school graduate and ordained minister, before he died of an aneurism at age 44. His survivors include children: Major Johns Jr, Cynthia Johns, Kenan Johns and his brother William, sisters Mary and Ella. I would be glad to hear from other survivors. More about Major is in my book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”

4 comments on “Major Johns – SCLC Field Director and Civil Rights Hero

  1. Ginger F. Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. I truly enjoyed reading.
    Just a correction:
    Rev. Major Johns was born and reared in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Plaquemines is a parish in Louisiana. Plaquemine is located in Iberville Parish where Rev. Johns was born and reared.


    • Maria Gitin says:

      Thank you for this correction. I got the spelling from Major John’s sister but will add it to the errata for my publisher. They are down to 200 hardbound books (from 1650) so we hope to have a paperback with corrections in a year or so. We have discovered many misspellings in official SCLC documents as well as personal records, but are always grateful to have the opportunity for corrections.


  2. Kenan E Johns aka sir kay Emarald says:

    Hello im Kenan Johns not keeneen
    aka sir kay emarald son of major johns sr. and his LATE WIFE RAMONA JOHNS AUTHOR SINGER EDUCATOR i proudly would like to say thank you we (MEANING ) the johns family Emarald’s need more info on the work my father did in shadows.I spoke with you once .
    You are very strong.
    At the time i was being abused because of The work my father did little did i know .
    I could not help you with info on my father .
    Please know im all for the right to be a child of God and will join with you to fight for freedom for the next generation for my children soon to to come the Johns – Emaralds


    • Maria Gitin says:

      Dear Kenan, Thank you for your message. Your father was indeed a great man and I wish I had been able to include even more about his life in “This Bright Light of Ours.” In interviewed your mother twice but she refused to sign the release form required by University of Alabama Press so I had to delete her remarks on his later life. Fortunately, your Uncle William filled in some of his story. I’m glad to hear from you and that you are doing well. I will send you your late mother’s comments in a private e-mail at your yahoo address. May they both rest in well-deserved peace. – Maria Gitin


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