Minister, Civil Rights Activist and Author: Meet John Perkins
John Perkins has been recognized as one of the leading evangelical voices to come out of the Civil Rights movement. He has served on or advised five of the U.S. Presidents on their Presidential Tasks Forces and has sixteen honorary doctorate degrees from schools. He is the author of seventeen books. Perkins is an overcomer. His mother died when he was just seven months old. He was abandoned by his father. When Perkins was a teenager, his brother was shot and killed by the town marshal. He would have to move from his hometown of New Hebron, Mississippi, to California for fear that they might take his life too. Risen interviewed the now 88-year-old Perkins to talk with him about how his experience with racism helped him in his faith journey, how he went from being a Civil Rights activist to going into full-time ministry, and why the message of reconciliation is pivotal for the Church today.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Growing up, your family endured the brutality of racism. Your brother was shot and killed by a town marshal. Your family urged you to leave New Hebron, Mississippi, because they feared you were in danger too. Share how that experience served as the catalyst to your faith journey and how you eventually returned to Mississippi years later.
John Perkins: I think as I get older now and look back, I think it was my education. I would ask the big question of why and I was never satisfied with the why, and somehow, I never believed that I was inferior. I think that is a very important thing. I think you are taught that by the environment you grow up in; and if you believe that lie, it stops you from learning. It makes that inferiority a reality. It probably turns to self-hate and it probably makes you mad, but you don’t know it. I think that a lot of our anger comes from people trying to impose a lie upon us within the culture and community. They don’t know the answer to the question when a child asks, “Why?” They won’t comment out loud because they wish that children never feel that way. And sometimes they are ashamed that they are accepting that as a reality.
Some people feel like they have to accept that lie in order to exist. Then there are some that rebel against it. That probably has to do more with your family in the community. My family were bootleggers and gamblers. They were rebelling against this law that white folks had made and put signs up. I think I grew up to rebel. I think most people grow up to rebel. Your education and creativity come out of your determination. This memory is a great example. I worked a whole day when I was eleven years old and that was during World War II. No men are here [in the United States]. I’m a man in that environment. I expected to get about $1-$1.50 for a day’s worth of work. That is what a black, young person would have got for a day’s worth of work. At the end of the day, the man gave me fifteen cents. I have never been so angry because I valued my hard work and my pleasing of him. Even if he would have given me seventy-five cents, I would have been pleased, but he gave me fifteen cents. What I really wanted to do because I was so angry, was to throw the money at him. I looked at what this man had, his wagon and his field. It was capital. All I had was my needs and my wants. I had to think, “Can I get a job? Can I make a job? Can I determine how much I am worth when I work? Can I get a job as a piece-maker?” So, I learned this economic system. Then I learned that justice is a stewardship.
People don’t know what justice is. They have made it about how “do I feel.” We’ve become more concerned about socializing than caring for the human need and the quality of life. The Evangelical Church has bought into a right-wingedness. I can’t believe it. We don’t understand that justice is the stewardship of life. Christ said, “I have come that they might have life. And that you might have it more abundantly.” It’s about the poor and the oppressed. Is it about the blind and the hopeless? Is it about those that the Lord said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me?” He has appointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor and the prostitute and the Samaritan, the blind and the helpless.
I think that a lot of our anger comes from people trying to impose a lie upon us within the culture and community.
RM: In 1967, you faced school desegregation head on. You decided to enroll your son, Spencer, at the previously all-white Mendenhall High School. What did that process look like for you as a dad and for your family?
JP: I think that it was an opportunity to participate in the pressures that were around me. Martin Luther King and the pressure of Medgar Evers getting killed. It’s the pressure of the ride in Arkansas when the kids wanted to go to school. It was hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech where he said that, “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I wanted to be a part of that. Sometimes I feel bad when my kids told me later on about the misery that they went through. If they would have told me at the time, I might have backed up some. But they didn’t tell me that at the time. They tell me that they are so glad that we did that. My daughter shared in a news interview that, “We were like sacrificial lambs.” I almost cried. It created a tension. But some of that is life’s journey. The fruit of the spirit that Paul talks about is what helps us to overcome. The forces are still there. I think living in that tension looking for joy. Some of the violence and self-hatred and genocide is a contradiction in this society. And I think that both people don’t feel good about themselves. That is why we are seeing so much suicide. God created the church as a redemptive people, but we are failing.
RM: In 1969, you became a leader in the boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall, Mississippi. You were arrested and beaten because of your skin color by white police officers in jail. How did you and your family heal and what words of wisdom would you offer to others who have experienced racial injustice?
JP: I was arrested in Mendenhall. That’s where we boycotted. That’s where they had beat up a black guy in jail. And we didn’t realize we were challenging a system. They didn’t beat us up in the Mendenhall jail. They would have if the District Attorney would have allowed the Sheriff to because he was going to do that, but the District Attorney stopped him. But then when we got arrested after the boycott in January, they arrested us in another county. It was like a trap set up to break the boycott. That’s where they beat us up at. If you can find the grace of a friend or the benevolence and empathy of those around you, black and white, it will help you to forgive. That’s what happened to me in the long-run. I had friends in Mississippi and California both white and black, that loved me beyond my race. They wouldn’t give up on me. Those men would come in the evening and guard our house and tell me and our family to go to bed. White doctors would sit by my bed, until I went to sleep. That was extra duty. Black and white nurses who helped me when I was struggling. These were friends. That’s what makes reconciliation so necessary. Reconciliation is really the answer to sins and problems. God, through Christ was reconciling the world to Himself. I think Jesus made those illustrations. He didn’t condemn that woman that was caught in adultery. He tested them about others. He didn’t accommodate. We need those brothers and sisters around us that are different from us. That’s what the Good Samaritan was. Instead of polarizing the differences, we need to find the common good amongst the differences that can bring us together. Athletics do a great job of bringing our society together. We aren’t going to back up.
RM: That experience in the jail helped you to become focused in your ministry. Explain to us what that looked like. You went from being an activist to going into full-time ministry.
JP: When they were torturing me, I said if I had an atomic hand grenade, I would pull the plug. I would have blown up the nineteen or so students with me, both black and white and the policemen. Then I thought about what might be the solution. If I could preach the Gospel that could bring whites and blacks together, I wanted to do that. So, I recommitted my life. It wasn’t instant. It took some time, but I made that my focus. And the focus for the rest of my life is that I want to preach the Gospel. I had to go through pain. I had to meet a white policeman that I could look at in the face. I became a friend with one of the Sheriffs here in my county and began to go to his jail for twelve years and setting up a program that we call “Inside Out.” It focuses on working with them when they are inside and how we can work with them when they come out. That’s what it looked likes. Henry Ford used this as a business principle, but we can apply it to reconciliation, “Coming together is the beginning. Working together is progress. Staying together is success.” Let’s be reconciled, but let’s figure out ways we can live that out within society. You’ve got to decide that’s wrong. You’ve got to decide that’s evil and then you have to decide to be intentional and obey the commandment to “Love one another…”
If you can find the grace of a friend or the benevolence and empathy of those around you, black and white, it will help you to forgive.
RM: You have been identified as one of the leading evangelical voices to come out of the civil rights movement. What does that mean to you and what type of responsibility does that title carry?
JP: I think it’s the grace of God. I hope it reflects the fruit of the Spirit and that it would still be by the grace of God. I think one of those main virtues that we all have to have within the fruit of the Spirit is perseverance, keep going. I think in that sense we feel grateful. The whole Christian life should come out of gratitude. That’s the idea of the redemption, “For God so loved the world…” He accomplishes it through us. That ought to be humbling in our spirit. But joy and gratitude too. I’m getting an award soon from one of the largest Baptist churches in the city. I’m a third-grade dropout and they are giving me a lifetime service award in my hometown. People know here that I have tried to forgive and found some joy and friendship with whites through forgiving them. I came out of the Civil Rights movement. I survived it. That’s a pretty good feeling.
RM: From building a wall to people arguing over whether to take a knee during the National Anthem, our headlines are filled with racial injustice. You recently wrote a book called One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race. What’s the meaning behind the title and why do you feel like this is such an important message right now for the Church?
JP: I think it is because so much of the Evangelical church did it out loud in their support of Trump without thinking. It’s a sad day. We do need to forgive and not keep repeating. The darkness of branding blacks as a permanent, not being created in the image of God. That was a strong statement in history. We said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” It’s really a bad day for us. It tends to divide the world. The world doesn’t know what side to go on. The Church, which is the prophetic voice of God and God’s people, I think we need to find the strength to forgive each other. This is a time for a prophetic voice to appear.
RM: In the book, you talk about how relocation, reconciliation and redistribution is pivotal for communities to work together. What are some practical things people can do to live these principles out?
JP: They shall call His name Jesus, for He shall forgive the people from their sin. I think the strength to forgive has to be the essence of the Christian life. That’s what He came into the world for and sin is of our own making. Jesus was without sin. We are broken people who want to become Christians. Forgiveness ought to come out of our gratitude. [That’s what] the 23rd Psalm is trying to say. David committed one of the most hideous sins any human being could commit. You can’t get any worse than David. We don’t deal with our sin. God forgives us of our sin. He makes a mockery; It is often hard for people to forgive. We often want punishment. What is Christianity, if it is not forgiveness of sins? That is the marvelousness of the incarnation. Your sins are forgiven, that is the good news. There ought to be a little bit of joy.
God gives us the courage to obey. Prayer is essential. We have minimized the divine redemptive prayers and we have tried to explain them away. Faith is hearing God and acting upon it.
RM: We often overlook the fact that Jesus demonstrated diversity and love by his selection of the twelve disciples. Why was this important then and what does it mean for us now?
JP: A love without saying. We can understand what He came for. We made it something else. It was evident when they [the disciples] went out because language and interpretation was not as strong then as it is now…The Holy Spirit was making it plain. Plain enough so that we can learn as we read it. It’s the excitement that my sins are forgiven. I’m 88 years old and sometimes I get cold chills through me when I talk to somebody. When I feel the joy and fellowship with people like you, you and I will meet somewhere, someday. “By this people will know us by our love.” Eating together might be the most powerful witness, because all five of your senses are available and working together at the same time. You are expressing, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul…” when you sit down and eat together [with people of different backgrounds]. Eating together is a powerful deal.
RM: You talk specifically how prayer is integral in reconciliation. What encouragement do you have for believers as they pray for their communities and this country?
JP: Prayer is listening for God’s will. The great man of God that reflects that virtue is Elijah. In a tough situation, he told the king that he messed up and it was not going to rain for two and a half years. Pray without ceasing. You are trying to listen to God so that you can obey Him. Prayer is that God’s will be done and His Kingdom come. That’s the Lord’s prayer. God gives us the courage to obey. Prayer is essential. We have minimized the divine redemptive prayers and we have tried to explain them away. Faith is hearing God and acting upon it. That isn’t your courage. That’s the courage He gives. I think there is something about an environment where prayer is answered. I think God speaks and wants to speak into that. Prayer is to be answered when we are in a relationship. I tremble sometimes when I think about John 15 where it talks about, “Abide in me…you can ask what you will and He will hear me…” Salvation is somewhat all of God and not of ourselves. It is the gift of God, not that one should boast. We should come to God expecting Him to answer our prayer.