Posted by Arab American Institute on June 09, 2015 in Blog
While largely an unsung hero, Arab American Ralph Johns was one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Born in the early 1920s to Syrian immigrants, Johns was a chief source of motivation for students who led the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins at a Woolworth five-and-dime. Attracting national attention, the events in Greensboro are often considered to be the launching platform for the Civil Rights Movement that followed.
Johns grew up in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and was a football player in his younger years. By the 1930s, Johns had become involved in the film industry before leaving in the 1940s to serve his country in WWII through the Army Air Force. It wasn’t until he was discharged from the Army in 1944 that he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he opened his own clothing store.
Ralph Johns’ passion for justice and equality stemmed from the simple fact that he couldn’t understand why a large portion of the population couldn’t sit at the counter of a local restaurant, purely because of their color. In defiance, the large-framed former football player placed bold signs on the windows of his store reading “God Hates Segregation” and “Special This Week: Love Thy Neighbor.” Johns also frequently hired black employees to work at his business, boldly defying the status quo.
Miles Wolff, author of “How it all Began: The Greensboro Sit-Ins” once told the LA Times that “in the ‘50s [Johns] was probably the only white man in Greensboro fighting segregation.” In addition, Franklin Eugene McCain, a member of the famed “Greensboro Four” recalled that Ralph Johns had been encouraging blacks to crash Woolworth long before the notorious sit-in actually occurred on February 1, 1960. In fact, as early as 1948 Johns had been trying to get African Americans to sit-in at the Woolworth store in Greensboro; there had simply been no one willing to take such a bold move until 1960.
The sit-ins that Ralph Johns instigated prompted protests in Greensboro that lasted for five long months, and that initial sit-in became a crucial component of the greater Civil Rights Movement across the country; in the words of Dr. George Simkins, who had been president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s Greensboro chapter for 25 years, “He was the sit-in. There’s no question about it, it was his idea.” Johns was also the first non-black person to join the local chapter of the NAACP.
Johns’ courage in the face of the racism and segregation did not come without consequence. Throughout his time in Greensboro, Johns received more than 25 bomb threats and was repeatedly beaten; his store was also defaced with racial slurs. Eventually, Johns’ store went out of business, and he was forced to move.
Those who met him after his days in Greensboro would not have known about his selflessness and generosity – probably because of his intimidating stature. However, during the Vietnam War the patriotic Ralph Johns made international headlines by offering himself to be exchanged for American pilots being held by Ho Chi Minh’s regime; Johns’ courageous act inspired 1,500 other Americans to offer themselves for American prisoners of war.
Later in life, Johns continued in his passion to promote equality, as he regularly delivered blankets to the homeless in Los Angeles.
Ralph Johns is often a forgotten leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and when he is recognized, it is usually without mention of his Arab heritage. Arab Americans have long campaigned for equality and justice in the United States and abroad, and today the issue of racism and prejudice is extremely relevant both at home and across the Middle East. Heroes for justice and equality like Ralph Johns cannot be ignored, and their achievements must be recognized.
Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.