Ralph Johns was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, on January 22, 1916. Johns served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was discharged at the Overseas Replacement Depot in Greensboro. He remained in Greensboro and opened Ralph Johns Clothier on East Market Street.
Johns was a member of the NAACP and served as vice president in the late 1950s. As early as the 1950s, he began to put messages against racism and segregation in his storefront window. Johns encouraged his black student customers to fight segregation, and provided advice and financial support when they did so during the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins. When his store later went out of business, Johns worked briefly as a reporter for the Carolina Peacemaker and for the Gate City Courier. He also worked with the Guilford County Office of Economic Opportunity.
Johns remained active in the local civil rights movement until he moved to La Habra, California, in the mid-1970s. There, he worked as an associate publisher of a weekly newspaper, and acted in bit roles, as he had done in the 1930s. In 2000, a commemoration of the Greensboro civil rights movement included the renaming of a street in his honor. Johns died on October 2, 1997 at the age of 81.