Nearly 30 years ago, Ralph Johns reached out and touched history. It was a fleeting caress but he cannot forget the texture of the moment when he--a white merchant with a maverick streak wider than a freeway--helped four young black men walk into a Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., and sit down at the whites-only lunch counter.
Today, few know what Johns did in helping open a new front in the struggle for civil rights. Now in his later years, Johns--who went broke, lost his first wife and was separated from his daughters for 13 years because he stood against the crowd--often expresses bitterness that the fame, glory, success and satisfaction that went to others in the movement have eluded him.
“I just want somebody to say, ‘Hey, Ralph, thanks a hell of a lot for what you’ve done,’ ” he said the other day as he thumbed through his carefully tended scrapbooks, archives of an impulsive, episodic, improbable life.
Johns, 73, a former bit actor who came to Southern California after his Greensboro business failed, also worries that his unforgettable moment will be forgotten, that his modest bid for immortality will be trumped by collective amnesia.
“Seldom do people get up and say Ralph Johns was a stalwart in the civil-rights movement,” said John Kilimanjaro, editor and publisher of the Carolina Peacemaker, a black weekly newspaper in Greensboro. “I personally don’t feel he’s been fully appreciated,” Kilimanjaro added in a telephone interview. “Ralph is an individual who has paid his dues in full--and the dues of a hundred others.”
Dr. George Simkins, president of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP for 25 years, said flatly, “He was the sit-in. There’s no question about it, it was his idea.”
On another plane, Johns is remembered for befriending a young couple in Greensboro who would go on to bigger things. “I’m so glad he was there,” said Jacqueline Jackson, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. “He is just a wonderful and special human being to many people, especially our family.”
An Affable Air
A jowly man who wears big-framed glasses, Johns lives with his wife of five years, Norma, in a trailer park in the Los Angeles sprawl, surrounded by scores of other neat double-wide mobile homes and not far from the park’s ample clubhouse and swimming pool. It is an unlikely home for a social rebel, yet Johns seems to fit. He has a settled, country-club air, thanks to an affable, assured manner and clothes that smack of the golf course. (In fact, he says he was once banned from Greensboro’s golf courses for trying to integrate them.)
Nor is there anything to telegraph immediately that Johns, who has worked for the last 17 years as associate publisher of a Beverly Hills weekly, is such a complicated, contradictory mix of selflessness, generosity, idealism, religious faith, emotional vulnerability, self-indulgence and ego. Or that he has led such an impulsive, colorful, star-crossed life.
The pictures on the wall of the living room and the voluminous scrapbooks quickly change first impressions, however. Pride of place is given to a large framed photo of Johns and a group of Greensboro’s black leaders with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., around the time of the sit-ins. The scrapbooks contain clippings from local newspapers, letters and hundreds of photos dating back to Johns’ early youth. But Johns doesn’t need the yellowing scraps of paper to prompt his memory of that day when actions became so much louder than words. He is accustomed to delving into the past, of reliving the moments that in retrospect are saturated with might-have-beens.
When the four young men stopped by his store on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960, and told him they were going to Woolworth’s, Johns was surprised, he said. He had been proselytizing students from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College and others about staging a sit-in for about 10 years. There had never been any takers and then, suddenly, he had the recruits he had sought for so long. To protect his identity--and perhaps as a dramatic flourish--Johns assigned everybody numbers, a primitive code for emergency phone calls. Johns was No. 1.
“I said whatever you do, if anything happens, call me on the phone but don’t call me by my name because I’ve had a lot of threats, bomb threats and beatings and everything else and my wife’s about ready to break a 20-year marriage,” Johns remembers. " . . . Now listen, I’m Number 1. If anything happens call me up. And it was close to 5 o’clock. The manager (of Woolworth’s) tried to get them out and they refused. So Ezell Blair, who was No. 2--his father was a teacher in Greensboro--called me and I said what’s happening and he said they’re trying to throw us out. I called up the newspaper and a photographer got the picture (of the four men at the counter).”
Most accounts of the American civil-rights struggle cover the Greensboro sit-ins. Often they list the names of the four North Carolina Agricultural & Technical students--Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond--who discovered a fresh rallying point for the movement. The Greensboro protest rapidly became the impetus for many other such actions in the weeks and years ahead. (Sit-ins had been used previously in other states but somehow the chemistry was right in Greensboro.) Yet apparently only one book, long out of print, mentions Ralph Johns.
Johns’ obscurity seems to stem from a number of factors. Perhaps most important, he chose to remain in the background at the time of the sit-ins, fearing that his involvement would endanger his family. It was an unusual move for Johns, who started seeking publicity early in life, gaining a name for himself in the 1930s as the kid who crashed big-time prize fights, getting his smiling, truant mug in the newspapers standing boldly in the ring as a new champion was crowned.
And Johns, a hefty former football player, was a tempting target three decades ago in Greensboro--a man with the gall to fight bigotry by putting signs such as “Special This Week: Love Thy Neighbor” and “God Hates Segregation” in front of his store. He also wrote a column for the local black newspaper, the Champion, trumpeting his ideas about equal rights. He had come to the South and met and married a local woman after being discharged from the Army in Greensboro. His wife’s family helped set him up in business there. But he seems never to have fit in with the norms and mores of the Carolina textile mill town.
By his count, Johns received 27 bomb threats over the years in Greensboro. He was beaten, his store window defaced with racist slogans and he and his family socially ostracized, he said, remembering the pain one year when his two daughters were not invited to a neighborhood Christmas party.
In both the black and white communities of Greensboro, the outspoken, exotic Johns, born of Syrian immigrant parents in New Castle, Pa., was a pariah, according to Miles Wolff, author of “How It All Began: The Greensboro Sit-Ins,” a master’s thesis that became a book published in 1970. Some skeptics said that Johns supported civil rights because it was good for his business, which catered largely to black customers.
By 1960, Johns--the Northern outsider--had little influence even among Greensboro’s civil-rights activists, said Wolff, who now owns the minor-league baseball team the Durham Bulls, inspiration for the successful movie, “Bull Durham,” and publishes Baseball America, a sports trade paper.
“Nobody listened to Ralph,” Wolff said. “The only people who did were four freshmen who didn’t know any better. . . . Ralph in a sense is crazy. He’s got his own drummer and he’s going to do something different. In the ‘50s he was probably the only white man in Greensboro fighting segregation.”
Wolff, who happened on the white gadfly by accident as he scouted Greensboro for sources on the sit-ins, said that the protest swiftly grew beyond the control of its creators.
Ironically, he added, the failure of the Woolworth manager to have the four students arrested sent the five conspirators into near panic. Blair’s phone call to Johns was a plea for help--"What do we do, we’re not getting arrested?” Wolff explained.
In retrospect, Johns’ contribution to civil rights and the turbulent decade that was beginning was both trivial and cosmic, Wolff believes. “All Ralph did was give these kids the idea, he didn’t really do anything,” he said, noting that the protest went on for months and was dominated by black students. “After Feb. 2, 1960, he had no more role,” Wolff said.
But Wolff also said that the sit-in was one of the first events to show the power of student activism. “All of a sudden it proved students could change things,” he said, adding that the sit-in may have helped make possible “the whole student activism of the 1960s.”
Furthermore, Johns had the insight to pick one of segregation’s soft spots, Wolf said. “His seeing that Woolworth’s was vulnerable was crucial.”
Wolff, who seems to appreciate the comic aspects of the potentially explosive situation, said that plainly no one involved had any idea that the sit-in would be copied on such a wide scale. Johns “didn’t know what he was starting,” he said. “He believed in his heart that segregation was wrong and, gosh, something ought to be done.”
Indeed, when Johns discusses the events leading up to the protest, he seems to have been motivated partly out of a violated sense of business ethics.
“Every year from 1950, I used to ask the students who came in my store if they had any guts and they’d say what do you mean?” Johns recounted. “Well I says, at the Woolworth 5- and 10-cent store and at Kress (another retailer) you can walk in and buy pencils at one counter, you can buy all kinds of items at other counters but right across, five feet away, there’s a lunch counter you can’t sit down and buy yourself something to eat. You have to buy (at the takeout window) but walk out. You can’t eat there, you’re not allowed to sit down and eat. And I says this is supposed to be a public place, it’s not a private club. They’re taking your money at all the counters but you can’t go to the lunch counter like a decent citizen.”
Johns’ strategy, if that’s what it was, was simple.
”. . .This student came in my store by the name of Joe McNeil and I asked him the same question and he says what do you mean?” Johns said, savoring the memory. “And I says, well can you get me a few students to go up to Woolworth’s. I’ll give you the money and you go to different counters and buy items but make sure you get a receipt and go to the lunch counter. And when you go sit down they’ll tell you I’m sorry but we don’t wait on colored or Negroes. Then you call her a liar and say you do wait on us because here’s the receipt to prove it. You just waited on us five feet from here.”
A month or so later McNeil came back with three friends, and four naive students and a nonconformist retailer ended up setting their corner of the world on fire. Within days sit-ins began in other cities and states as civil-rights organizations seized the tactic both as symbol and tool in the assault on segregation.
Ironically, for Ralph Johns there was no glory, only another round of failure. In a twist of fate, Johns was forced to go out of business by the late 1960s, largely because his customers drifted to other, bigger stores that had been integrated, lunch counters and all.
He lived in a rented room, his wife having left him, taking their daughters.
“I had a good marriage,” Johns said. “She was a good woman but she was a segregationist and she didn’t want to get involved anymore.”
Johns, who moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and had heart bypass surgery three years ago, still keeps in touch with his friends in Greensboro. And they seem to remember him with a mixture of fondness, humor and regret that things did not turn out better for him.
“He lost so much,” Kilimanjaro said. “His children wouldn’t speak to him for years and his wife left him and they were Roman Catholic. . . . He was inclined to give you the shirt off his back. If he had $2, he would give you one. . . . My psychiatrist would say he suffers from a guilt complex.”
Johns also was a sucker for students, Kilimanjaro said, noting that his friend often made them loans and gave them clothes. Much was never paid back, he added. Johns himself estimates that he was carrying more than $700,000 in bad debts on his books when he went out of business.
But Johns was not a man entirely wrapped up in charity and self-denial, Kilimanjaro cautioned. “If Ralph had $5, he would go down and get a massage. He might not have anything to eat but he would go down and get a massage. In those days, you could get a massage for $5 at the YMCA.”
Johns himself seems aware that he fits no mold. “It’s an unbelievable story but I have the scrapbooks to prove it,” he said.
But he doesn’t see his motives as complicated or tinged with self-interest.
“All I want now is that some day the world will shake off this hypocrisy and this hate,” he said. ". . . We’ve got to come back to God, that’s my thought now. I serve God in what little way I can. Christianity doesn’t come from lip service, it comes from soul service.”
Despite his regrets and his tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve, Johns said, “I can’t be vindictive. No matter what, I ask myself would I do this again? I’m afraid so.”