Johns was born of Syrian immigrant parents in New Castle, Pa. He was a big player in the movies during the 1930s, but he settled in Greensboro in 1944 after he was discharged from the Army Air Force. He opened a clothing store on East Market Street, which attracted many A&T students as customers, including the Greensboro Four. He is thought to have encouraged the students to challenge segregation and to have tipped off the press on the first day of the sit-ins at Woolworth. He was the first white person to join the local NAACP chapter. In the mid-1960s, with his business going broke and his marriage failing, Johns offered to exchange himself for American pilots being held in Vietnam. His offer made headlines all over the world.
In the late 1960s, he became an organizer for the Guilford County Office of Economic Opportunity. His fiery manner soon got him in trouble, and he was fired after accusing the agency of not doing enough for the poor. He moved to Hollywood in the early 1970s and tried to resume his movie career. He returned to Greensboro in 1977 to help his second wife launch The Courier, a tabloid publication. He later returned to California to work for a newspaper in Beverly Hills. He died in California in 1996.