Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr. was posthumously conferred the “Distinguished Alumnus” award at Vanderbilt Divinity School on October 3, 2014. Bishop Johnson was the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt University (BD’54), the first to receive a PhD (1958) and the first to serve as a full member on the Board of Trusts. [Click here for full bio.]
The Distinguished Alumni award award is “given to someone who has demonstrated excellence and distinction in justice making through their work in congregational ministry, religious institutions, ecumenical organizations, community –based organizations, government, or other social institutions.”
The award was presented by Dr. Emilie Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and Dr. Frank Dobson, Director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University. The award was accepted on behalf of Bishop Johnson by Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver, granddaughter of Bishop Johnson and president of the Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project.
In presenting the award, Dr. Dobson quoted from Bishop Johnson’s book, The Soul of the Black Preacher:
“Soul is the strength to survive in a hostile environment, to break through the legal and social conventions which tend to dehumanize and degrade. Soul is the ability to use creatively the destructive powers of a racist American society for the development of a tough faith and undying hope.” – Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr.
Dr. Dobson concluded, “Bishop Joseph Johnson broke through those legal and social conventions, and in doing so, he changed Vanderbilt forever. It is thus very fitting on the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 60th anniversary of his first graduation from Vanderbilt that this honor is being bestowed upon him.”
Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver accepted the award on behalf of her grandfather:
I want to thank the faculty of Vanderbilt Divinity School and Dean Emilie Townes for honoring my grandfather. I also want to thank Dr. Frank Dobson for his presentation of this award.
It is an honor for me to accept this award on behalf of my grandfather and on behalf of all of my family, some of whom are present this evening. I also accept this award on behalf of Capers Memorial CME Church, whose members are also present and where Bishop Johnson pastored while at Vanderbilt, and the entire CME Church.
In the introduction to Bishop Johnson’s book, The Soul of the Black Preacher, Bishop C.D. Coleman (who wrote the introduction) describes the black preacher as “teacher, healer, carpenter, and undertaker by necessity. It was he who took down the mutilated bodies…after the mobs had done their worst. It was he who represented black people to a hostile white community in times of deep trouble.” These words possessed deep meaning for Bishop Johnson, who, early in his ministry, did actually perform the funeral of a man who had been lynched.
Today, however, those who carry Bishop Johnson’s legacy are not limited to black preachers. They include those who minister to the families of Trevon Martin and Michael Brown and other African Americans families denied racial justice. But they also include those who minister at the US-Mexican border to children fleeing in a mass exodus to a better life. They include people of faith who interdict human traffickers, freeing people from modern-day slavery. They include those who minister to families experiencing the trauma of domestic violence.
Today, my grandfather’s legacy is carried by the soul of the justice-seeking preacher who is committed, as Bishop Johnson was, to improving our world with the intellectual, interpretive power to proclaim the gospel in liberating ways, combined with courageous pastoral care to those at the margins of society, along with faithful action for social and economic justice on behalf of the least, the last, and the lost.
It is this vision of mind and soul, of intellect and faith in the service of justice that compelled Bishop Johnson to attend Vanderbilt, and it is a vision that he carried throughout his life, his ministry, and his theology. I thank Vanderbilt Divinity School for honoring Bishop Johnson and his legacy. I thank Bishop Johnson for his life vision, and for all of us who carry his legacy, our soul-filled struggle for a more just world continues. – Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver