John Henry Faulk, humorist and author, fourth of five children of Henry and Martha (Miner) Faulk, was born in Austin, Texas, on August 21, 1913. His parents were staunch yet freethinking Methodists who taught him to detest racism. He entered the University of Texas in 1932. Under the guidance of J. Frank Dobie, Walter P. Webb, and Roy Bedichek, he developed his considerable abilities as a collector of folklore. For his master's degree thesis, Faulk recorded and analyzed ten African-American sermons from churches along the Brazos River. His research convinced him that members of minorities, particularly African Americans, faced grave limitations of their civil rights. Between 1940 and 1942, Faulk taught an English I course at the University, using mimicry and storytelling to illustrate the best and worst of Texas societal customs. Often made to feel inferior at faculty gatherings, Faulk increasingly told unbelievable tales and bawdy jokes. His ability both to parody and to praise human behavior led to his entertainment and literary career. Early in World War II the army refused to admit him because of a bad eye. In 1942 he joined the United States Merchant Marine for a year of trans-Atlantic duty, followed by a year with the Red Cross in Cairo, Egypt. By 1944 relaxed standards allowed the army to admit him for limited duty as a medic; he served the rest of the war at Camp Swift, Texas.
Radio provided Faulk the audience he, as a storyteller, craved. Through his friend Alan Lomax, who worked at the CBS network in New York, Faulk became acquainted with industry officials. During Christmas 1945, Lomax hosted a series of parties to showcase Faulk's yarn-spinning abilities. When discharged from the army in April 1946, CBS gave Faulk his own weekly radio program, entitled "Johnny's Front Porch"; it lasted a year. Faulk began a new program on suburban station WOV in 1947 and the next year moved to another New Jersey station, WPAT, where he established himself as a raconteur while hosting "Hi-Neighbor," "Keep 'em Smiling," and "North New Jersey Datebook." WCBS Radio debuted the "John Henry Faulk Show" on December 17, 1951. The program, which featured music, political humor, and listener participation, ran for six years.
Faulk's radio career ended in 1957, a victim of the Cold War and the blacklisting of the 1950s. Inspired by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, AWARE, Incorporated, a New York-based, for-profit, corporation, offered "clearance" services to major media advertisers and radio and television networks. For a fee, AWARE would investigate the backgrounds of entertainers for signs of Communist sympathy or affiliation. In 1955 Faulk earned the enmity of the blacklist organization when he and other members wrested control of their union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists from officers under the aegis of AWARE. In retaliation, AWARE branded Faulk a Communist. When he discovered that the AWARE bulletin prevented a radio station from making him an employment offer, Faulk sought redress. Several prominent radio personalities and CBS News vice president Edward R. Murrow supported Faulk's effort to end blacklisting. With financial backing from Murrow, Faulk engaged New York attorney Louis Nizer. Attorneys for AWARE, including McCarthy-committee counsel Roy Cohn, managed to stall the suit, which was originally filed in 1957, for five years. When the trial finally concluded in a New York courtroom, the jury had determined that Faulk should receive more compensation than he sought in his original petition. On June 28, 1962, the jury awarded him the largest libel judgment in history to that date—$3.5 million. An appeals court subsequently reduced the amount to $500,000. Legal fees and accumulated debts erased the balance of the award.
Despite his vindication, CBS did not rehire Faulk—indeed, years passed before he worked again as a media entertainer. He returned to Austin in 1968. From 1975 to 1980 he appeared as a homespun character on the television program "Hee-Haw." During the 1980s he wrote and produced two one-man plays. In both Deep in the Heart (1986) and Pear Orchard, Texas, he portrayed characters imbued with the best of human instincts and the worst of cultural prejudices. The year 1974 proved pivotal for Faulk. CBS Television broadcast its movie version of Fear on Trial, Faulk's 1963 book that described his battle against AWARE. Also in 1974, Faulk read the dossier that the FBI had maintained on his activities since the 1940s. Disillusioned and desirous of a return to the country, Faulk moved to Madisonville, Texas. He returned to Austin in 1981. In 1983 he campaigned for the congressional seat abdicated by Democrat-turned-Republican Phil Gramm. Although he lost the three-way race, the humorist had spoken his mind. During the 1980s he traveled the nation urging university students to be ever vigilant of their constitutional rights and to take advantage of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin sponsors the John Henry Faulk Conference on the First Amendment.
In 1940 Faulk wed one of his students at the University of Texas, Hally Wood. They had a daughter. After he and Hally were divorced, Faulk married Lynne Smith, whom he met at a New York City rally for presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the spring of 1948. Born of their marriage were two daughters and a son. After his divorce from Lynne, Faulk married Elizabeth Peake in 1965: they had a son. Faulk died in Austin of cancer on April 9, 1990. The city of Austin named the downtown branch of the public library in his honor.