His life was a sermon.
High school dropout. Married at 17. Spent too much time and money on alcohol and gambling and not enough for his family.
The man the Rev. J.H. Flakes Jr. started to be didn’t define him; it motivated him to be greater.
And great was the impact he made on this community, said those who recalled his influence Monday.
Flakes was pastor at Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus for 51 years. In April, he retired and handed the leadership of the church to his son, J.H. Flakes III.
Flakes also served as pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Phenix City for 53 years.
During the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, Flakes Jr. served as the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He played a key role in the founding of local service organizations, including the Urban League of Greater Columbus and One Columbus.
Flakes, 78, died early Monday morning at a local hospital before a planned procedure, said Karl Douglass, a Fourth Street Baptist member and former neighbor.
Flakes’ greatness wasn’t confined to the pulpit or his civic leadership.
“The way he was in church was the same way he was as a father in the neighborhood,” said Douglass, who grew up in the Boxwood area of Columbus. “He stuck to his guns with integrity. He said what he meant and meant what he said.
“ He did not have a problem speaking out on issues of injustice and inequality. He would do it without blinking an eye, but he also was willing to sit down with people of opposing views and use diplomacy and tact to work toward a solution. He knew when to press the gas and press the brake.”
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Albany) called Flakes a mentor, disciplinarian and an inspiration.
“He was my pastor for 24 years,” Bishop said. “He’s truly a giant redwood that has fallen in the forest. He made a tremendous impact on this community. He was a true example of courage, of perseverance, starting from humble beginnings and ultimately determined to be all that he could be and make the greatest contribution through the ministry of Jesus Christ.”
Columbus attorney Morton Harris worked on several community projects with Flakes. He saw the pastor serve folks beyond the church doors. “He was determined to continue to work on making Columbus a place where all people are recognized and helped in a way to have a better life,” Harris said.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson credits Flakes for being among the leaders who forged stable race relations.
“He really set the pace and tone for how we were going interact as a well-integrated community,” she said. “We’re still on that path. It’s still a journey we’re taking. But he started it with the right tone and the right pace, so that it is very well entrenched in Columbus. We’re so much further along than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. And that is in large measure due to Rev. Flakes’ leadership.”
Bill Turner, retired W.C. Bradley Co. chairman and philanthropist, worked closely with Flakes to establish the local Urban League chapter. Turner summed up the legacy of his friend this way: “Columbus is a better place because of Johnie Flakes.”
A life turned around
Flakes was born Jan. 12, 1934, in an impoverished section of Phenix City called Pumpkin Bottom — only across the Chattahoochee River from his comfortable home in Sears Woods but an immeasurable trip in circumstances and spirit.
His father was a pastor, but Flakes didn’t look like he would follow in his footsteps.
“I was not a good husband or father,” Flakes said in an interview last year. “I did not take care of my family.”
He dropped out of South Girard High School as a 10th-grader. He did odd jobs but “came home every Saturday night broke” after drinking and gambling.
When he was 21, his father died and so did his hope. He ended up in a hospital after drinking some poison.
“I went through a terrible time, almost to the point of taking my life,” he said. “But God, in his miraculous ways, saved me.” Given a second chance, Flakes capitalized on it.
He worked as a youth minister at Fourth Street. For more than four years, he drove back and forth to American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., to obtain his GED and then a bachelor’s degree, Bishop said. The high school dropout ended up chairing the board of trustees at his college and having a campus building named after him.
A few months after the Rev. Henry Harris died in 1961, Flakes became Fourth Street’s pastor. The church grew from about 600 to 3,000 members. As he developed his pastorate, his outlook also evolved. Flakes went from thinking there weren’t “any good white folks” to being a nonviolent bridge builder in race relations.
“I was very vocal and considered a troublemaker by many,” Flakes said. “I thought I was doing what I was called by God to do, and that is speaking out against things that went wrong.”
And as he matured, he sought that goal through consensus.
“He was very pragmatic in realizing the entire community had to be involved,” Harris said.
Flakes’ civic work didn’t end when the civil rights marches stopped. For example, he was instrumental in forming the Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministry three years ago, said the Rev. Jimmy Elder, pastor at First Baptist Church of Columbus.
“Johnie always felt that every human being has the right to have a voice and have an opportunity,” Elder said, “and I might even add a leg up sometimes.”
Flakes was married to Robena Gaines Flakes and was the father of three children and three granddaughters.
As a comfort to those in grief, Douglass retold a teaching from Flakes:
“He always talked about how fleeting and temporal things on Earth were,” Douglass said. “It was a beginning, not an end, for him. You don’t mourn them in the idea that they’re gone forever; you just long for them but you also celebrate that they’ve moved onto the next phase of life to live with God.”
— Staff writers Larry Gierer and Mike Owen contributed to this report.