by Lucy Leitner
In honor of Black History Month, Hollyburgh is now going to profile a white guy —Ralph “Ruffles” Johns.
Thank you to Mary McAnallen for the story and all for the documents to put this together. You are right — this has all the characters, drama, and act structure to make a great movie.
One of the greatest gate crashers in the nation, Ralph Johns infiltrated movies, prizefights, the Olympics, and even the Civil Rights Movement. He was a bit player in movies, the instigator of the seminal Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, and also, of course, a Pittsburgher.
Johns began his prolific career of uninvited attendance while growing up in New Castle in the 1920s and 30s, sneaking into nickelodeons to see the latest movies. At that time, the crashing served a practical purpose — the son of Syrian immigrants, he simply couldn’t afford to pay to get into the theaters. That success, however, turned into crashing for sport, to be around pivotal events like the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He even stowed away on an ocean liner bound for Berlin to try to see the 1936 Olympics, but was arrested and spent 6 days in jail in England. He snuck into prize fights where he crashed photo ops of reigning heavyweight champs.
After graduating from New Castle High School in 1938, he moved to Los Angeles where he promptly crashed his way onto studio lots, which led to bit parts in several films. He worked with Abbott and Costello, in b-movie westerns, and as a stand-in for Rudolph Valentino.
After a brief stint as a soldier in WWII, he moved to Greensboro, NC in 1944 where he promptly spread the crashing spirit to those to whom crashing was unfortunately a part of daily life.
In that era of Jim Crow laws, just being part of society was considered crashing for African Americans. Johns opened a clothing store through which he attempted to eliminate this sentiment by hiring black employees. Many were students at North Carolina A&T state University, and included a young Jesse Jackson.
Johns had been eating at Woolworth and Kress’s for lunch in the late 1940s and couldn’t understand why he was able to sit down while black customers were forced to either stand or take their lunch to go.
It was during that time of his eclectic life that Johns organized his greatest crashing of his prolific career. He spent 12 years attempting to convince his employees and customers to breach the whites-only areas in town. He asked Bob “Stonewall” Jackson to crash the lunch counter in 1948, but the future New York Giants football star refused. Johns served as vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP, the first white to hold that position, and begged the members to do to do just as he did — to crash. But not to photo-bomb Joe Louis — to fight for equality.
Finally he coached four A&T students on what to say and do when they sat at the Woolworth lunch counter on February 1, 1960. That event became the famous Greensboro sit-in that spawned several others in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
Crashing his way into history did come at a price for Johns, as he claimed to have been run out of Greensboro by the KKK and others.
All Crashers Are Eventually Asked to Leave the Party
He moved to Memphis where he was left by his wife and fired from the clothing store where he worked. His role in the Civil Rights Movement, though the cause of his exile from Greensboro, was being virtually ignored.
One of the few times he was unable to infiltrate was in 1966 when he attempted to exchange himself to Ho Chi Min for American POWs. Though he was unsuccessful in crashing the Vietnam War, his bold offer was picked up by news wire services and spurred 1,200 others to join him.
He returned to Greensboro, but was fired from a federal anti-poverty organization. He failed as a reporter because screaming at his subjects is apparently not the best way to land the big story. So, he went to California where he lived out the rest of his days in a quieter fashion, selling ads for a newspaper in Beverly Hills.
After his death of heart failure in 1997, he crashed his way back into notability when obituaries finally recognized his role in the sit-ins and as, quite possibly, the original photobomber.
For a brief time in our nation’s history, if there was something monumental happening, Ralph Johns was there.
Read an interview with Johns about the sit-in here.
Listen to audio about his role in the sit-in here.