On July 10, 1997, the headline above his photograph on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser read, “Local man to star in feature film.” That is the day fate plucked John Franklin Sawyer from life as a retired U.S. postal service worker and favored him with national celebrity status. John Sawyer’s celebrity stems from a movie.
The 84-year-old Mr. Sawyer played a 99-year-old former slave in the title role in “Shadrach,” a major motion picture based on a short story by famed author William Styron. In the movie, Shadrach walks from Alabama to Virginia so he can die and be buried on the same plantation on which he was born.
Last summer, famed journalist Paul Delaney, his longtime friend and a Montgomery native, traveled here from New York to interview him for an article in The New York Times.
Delaney’s article, “Survivor of Many Tribulations, Including Stardom,” moved me to ponder how my 84-year-old friend manages his celebrity status. To find out, I called and invited him to lunch at Maxwell Air Force Base. After a leisurely lunch at the NCO Club and a trip along the river with a stop at the base golf course driving range, I knew the answer. This octogenarian copes with his celebrity status the way he lived his life: with charm, dignity and humility.
During our lunch at the club, Sawyer charmed the waitresses with well-practiced words, in a dialogue that rewarded him with one of the Young women’s attentive service. He enjoyed both the attention and his lunch.
When we drove by the driving range at the golf course, he asked me to stop, saying he would like to hit a couple of golf balls. He approached a couple who were hitting practice balls, and when he learned they where from France, initiated a conversation in French.
During the English-speaking part of the conversation, he said he had studied French in school 70 years earlier. When offered a club, he accepted it and proceeded to hit a very long drive off the tee.
Born the grandson of North Carolina slaves, Sawyer came to Montgomery as a young man in a preacher’s family. Imbued with an unshakable faith in God and armed with a college education. John Sawyer started on his journey in the 1920s as a teacher.
In the early 1930s, he scored among the top 10 among hundreds of applicants when he took the mail carriers’ test. This began his more than 30-year career as a Montgomery postman, interrupted only by time spent in he Navy during World War I as a seaman.
Fast forward through the bus boycott, the freedom rider riots, the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, he church bombings and hat entire era of Negro civil rights struggle. On this visit, Sawyer didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t bring it up. That discussion can wait for another day. This discussion was about celebrity.
Professor Tonea Stewart, head of the Department of Theater at Alabama State University helped Sawyer land the “Shadrach” role. Stewart is a successful working actress, whose many roles include playing a regular character in the television program “In the Heat of the Night” and starring opposite Samuel L. Jackson in the film “A Time to Kill.”
She first cast Sawyer in her production of slave narratives for the Smithsonian Institution’s “Slaves No More.” I watched him perform in “Slaves No More” last year at Roots and Wings. His performance was very good, I expect no less in “Shadrach,” an internationally awaited film.
I regret that I will not be at the Capri Theater in Old Cloverdale when “Shadrach” premieres tonight. I am certain that Sawyer will wear his celebrity with his well-practiced charm, dignity and humility.
Originally Published: 6 November 1998, Montgomery Advertiser