One of God's Irregulars: William Overton Johnston and the Challenge to the Church to Divest from Apartheid South Africa, 1954-1971

By Lockwood, Edgar | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2002 | Go to article overview

One of God's Irregulars: William Overton Johnston and the Challenge to the Church to Divest from Apartheid South Africa, 1954-1971


Lockwood, Edgar, Anglican and Episcopal History


William Overton Johnston founded Episcopal Churchmen for South Africa in New York City on 12 June 1956.1 From then until his death in 1998 he conducted a ministry to help liberate southern Africa from the apartheid system of white supremacy.

Johnston had little money, staff or modern equipment, but he poured his intense energy into that task with total devotion. He lived in poverty, but his life was enriched by his support of the oppressed and by his pursuit of justice. He sought to break down the barriers of inequality and privilege in which the Episcopal church was complicit. He developed an international network of people in the church and out of the church committed to such work. The network was never large, but it played an important role in the liberation of southern Africa.

Johnston was the antithesis of the organization man. He was often dismissed as an eccentric loner. Many called him a "character," implying that he was an ineffective and peculiar outsider. Yet when he died, Archbishop Desmond Tutu paid him this tribute:

[The victory over apartheid] in 1994 would have been totally impossible without the support, the prayers and love and dedication of many in the international community. None could rival Bill for passion and untiring engagement through the Episcopal Church People for Southern Africa...

We are deeply indebted to you, Bill, and your co-workers for justice, peace and freedom. We give thanks and praise to God for this outstanding servant of the Lord. We are where we are today because of him.2

This essay will provide an introduction to Johnston's life, covering the early years of his work up to the point where he drew back from challenging the Episcopal Church's bureaucracy on South Africa issues to concentrate on the liberation of the people of Namibia.

Johnston was born on 20 September 1921 to Robert Evans Johnston and Juliet Overton Alves in Henderson, Kentucky, a small town on the Ohio River. He was the only child of the marriage to survive to adulthood. His family was deeply established in the town. His father owned a taxicab company and considerable local real estate. His grandfather had been mayor.

The Johnston family were members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Johnston's Aunt Jeanie had enough influence in the church to persuade the bishop to confirm Will Overton in a private ceremony before he left for overseas service in World War II.

When asked if Henderson was a segregated town, Johnston replied:

Oh, you better believe it was! I guess a fifth of the population was black. In a certain section of town. Very segregated. And Deadsville! What do you do? You go into business; some people became lawyers or doctors. Me, I came up here [to Manhattan].3

Juliet Alves was eager to write historical novels, for she was proud of her family roots in the Daniel Boone migration west from North Carolina. She was unhappy in her marriage and felt unfulfilled. After summer school at Columbia University, she went back home determined to migrate to Manhattan and enter the literary world. She got a divorce and went to New York with her son in the early 1930s, armed with an introduction to Maxwell Perkins, the editor at Charles Scribners' Sons who had befriended Thomas Wolfe and other southern writers. Perkins helped her publish a volume of poems, an historical novel and a play. She put Bill in a private school in Riverdale, where he encountered black fellow students for the first time. A girl in his class was better than he was in math and science and though her greased hair repelled him, her intellectual ability jolted him and set him thinking. He had been brought up in a racist context in his family and community and had lived in a comfortable cocoon of white privilege.4

Although not a good student, Johnston obtained a scholarship to New York University and blossomed in his two years there until he was drafted into the Army. He served as an officer in a regimental rear echelon unit of the First Army, close to combat but never in it. …

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