Trying To Live the Truth in a Polarized Society

John Perkins and wife
John and Vera Mae Perkins in 1990.

By John Perkins

(The Rev. John Perkins, a Bible teacher, author and community developer, celebrated his 93rd birthday last June in West Jackson. On September 19 the Perkins Foundation will host a gala at the Civil Rights Museum to celebrate 63 years of service by John and his wife, Vera Mae. He has been awarded 17 honorary doctorate degrees; has served on many boards, including World Vision and Prison Fellowship; served on or advised the Presidential Task Forces of five U.S. Presidents and met a sixth President. He is the author of 17 books and has spoken in many places around the globe. He is co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association.)

Vera Mae and I have had lives with exceptional personal and professional challenges and uncommon fulfillment.

I was fortunate that a young writer named Will Norton was told about me and came to Mississippi in June 1970 and wrote articles for several magazines, and I was invited to tell my story and become friends with leaders here and in other nations.

Yet, as I look back over the years in which I have remembered my creator, I am a broken man because I realize how much I have come short of the glory of God.

I have come to realize that I have to stop defining who I think the other person is. 

I have to respect the other person. 

I have to love that person. 

I have to forgive that person. 

I have to work with that person.

Today, our society seems to have made a major turn. However, if we keep focusing on past prejudice and do not forgive, we will not make the most of this moment. Without reconciliation, racism continues, and there is no reconciliation without forgiveness.

The issue that we call race is really a human problem. It began in the Garden of Eden, and we have color coded it. We have done exactly what Adam and Eve did. They blamed others for their wrongdoing.

The challenge today is to see the wrong in ourselves and to forgive others and draw them to us so that we will be gracious and forgiving people and emulated by others.

There is wrong everywhere, but the wrongs will not be corrected if we do not recognize our own prejudices, quit branding others as bigots, and fail to forgive.

My approach needs to be one of acceptance.

Arguing with a person about his or her views is not going to get us anywhere. Listening to them and showing them love and forgiveness is the only way others are going to learn to accept those with whom they disagree.

When I jump to let someone know that they are not correct, do you really think that is going to help them be more accepting?

In some very important situations early in my ministry, I did not have the strength to find the common ground with others so that they could see in my life what I believe. As a result, they found it difficult to accept me. Instead, I tried to use power to cause them to deal with me.  My comments and my tactics estranged them.

Now I may be seeing the world through old and outdated eyes, but I am convinced that thinking I am right and pressuring others to do what I want them to do is to follow the example of the Pharisees, the enemies of Jesus.

My perspective cannot be self-righteous.

Putting my political views ahead of my love of Jesus and selling my politics instead of the Gospel is a form of self-righteousness. People of the Book know that we all are either Sons of Adam or Daughters of Eve. We are a fallen race.

If I were a white man with money in the early 1800s, I might have gone to the slave market and bought slaves. I might have thought it was okay because that was the only way I was going to make money and protect the possessions that God had allowed me to accumulate.

My actions need to be bathed in forgiveness.

I have known great injustice. 

Early in life I experienced the evil of separate but equal. 

I was not paid fair wages when I worked for others as a boy. 

I saw my brother shot and killed beside a theater, while he was waiting to see a movie. 

I saw discriminatory practices in the stores of the community in which I lived.

Because of those experiences, I work to teach young men and women to accept others, to not be self-righteous and to love and work with others.

The emphasis has to be on forgiveness. There is a God who has forgiven me, a fallen human being. While others may have had experiences that were not as discriminatory as those I experienced, I have to forgive them if I truly understand the meaning of forgiveness.

Today I confess that, despite the Lord’s allowing me to participate in what He has been doing concerning racial reconciliation, we seem to be in a more critical time than I can remember. 

I do not see acceptance of others. 

I do not see forgiveness. 

Instead, I see self-righteousness.

I am broken.

I am searching my soul as to why reconciliation seems to be as much of an issue today as it was when I was a child, and I am renewing my commitment to not being a Pharisee who puts his politics and his perspectives on race before his love for the Lord.

My approach cannot be built on power.  It must be about truth, the truth that Jesus lived in accepting those with whom He had differences.  He forgave them and loved them.

I am broken because, despite my efforts, I know that I have come short of what the Lord intended for me to be.

Now in my last years, I am truly thankful that the people of Mendenhall and the people of Jackson have forgiven me for when I was not strong enough to find common ground with others so that they could see in my life what I believe.    

And I pray that during my last days, God will enable me to participate in a life that fulfills His will for me.

John Perkins and family
Dr. Vera Mae Perkins, Deborah (baby), Joanie, Phillip, Dr. John M Perkins and Spencer. Derek, Wayne, Priscilla and Elizabeth were not in the photo.

What Happened at Mendenhall and Brandon in 1970?

By Will Norton

The Rev. John Perkins was born in 1930 near New Hebron, about 50 miles south of Jackson. His grandmother taught him as a toddler that he was equal to those in white society and, because of that, to respect the dignity of others.

In 1950, when he was 20 years old, he moved to Los Angeles but returned to Mississippi in 1951 to marry Vera Mae. They moved to California and started a family.

After several years, Spencer, their oldest son, began attending Child Evangelism programs in which volunteers presented Bible accounts. Spencer got John and Vera Mae involved with the programs, and they became committed to the teachings of the Bible.

As John and Vera Mae read the Bible, they became increasingly convinced that it focused on helping needy people, and they thought more and more about the needs of people in Mississippi.  In 1960, he brought his family back home. Needing income, he began by picking cotton.

The Perkins had come to believe that a Christian is called to identify the needs of a person and meet those needs. Thus, through Sunday School classes, vacation Bible schools and public schools, they found ways to teach Scripture and, through community action, develop ways to meet the material needs of people.

John founded the Voice of Calvary Ministries in 1964 in Mendenhall, the county seat of
Simpson County and a town of 3,000 in the Piney Woods, about 30 miles southeast of Jackson. The ministry dealt with housing, health care, nutrition, education and job skills. As its leader, John started 25 economic cooperatives for Black people. He wanted to break the cycle of poverty that trapped the poor, and he became involved in voter registration. 

As part of that ministry, Vera Mae ran a day-care center. Together, they supported voter registration and, in 1967, they enrolled their son in the all-white Mendenhall High School.

In the 1960s, those efforts were considered extremely progressive, if not radical, and they led to John’s arrest two nights before Christmas in 1969.

He and Doug Huemmer, a 22-year-old white worker at Voice of Calvary, went to a grocery store in Mendenhall and saw a young Black man having trouble cashing a check. The young man had been drinking, and John asked him to go home with him.

Unfortunately, the owner of the store had already called the police, and the squad car arrived as they were getting into their car. The police followed them across the railroad tracks and down a dirt road. When they were a few blocks from Voice of Calvary and the Perkins residence, the policeman turned on his red light.

Huemmer got out first and asked why they had been stopped.

“You just shut up,” the policeman said. “Stand aside.”

When the young Black man got out of the car, the policeman said, “You’re under arrest for public drunkenness.”

John Perkins at Graduation
This honorary doctorate from Wheaton College is the first of 17 that the Rev. John Perkins has been awarded.

“Public drunkenness?” John said. “Wasn’t he in the car with us?”

“You shut up, Perkins,” the policeman said.

John started walking home, and Huemmer brought the car home a few minutes later. Then John went to the young man’s home, told his mother what had happened and went to the church where

young people were rehearsing a Christmas program.

A young woman told John about a young man who had been dragged out of a nearby Black church earlier that day. He had been taken to jail and beaten.

When John told her what had just happened, she said, “They’re going to beat him, too.”

Other young people gathered around John. They told him they wanted to go to the jail to see the young man, and John and Huemmer went with them.

When they got there, one of the young people told the police chief, “We heard you’d beat him up.”  “We haven’t laid hands on him,” the chief said. “Go in and see.”

So, they did.

And immediately, the young visitors also were locked in jail.

When the sheriff of Simpson County and the Mississippi Highway Patrol learned that some young people had been locked up for asking a question, the police tried to get the young people to leave.

But the young people wanted to know why they had been locked up. Finally, the police removed the young people and charged John with disturbing the peace.

He and Huemmer spent the night in the Mendenhall jail.

This troubled the young people, and they worked all night making signs. They were determined to boycott the town until John and Huemmer were released from jail.

At 10 a.m. the next morning, the police came to John’s jail cell to take him to trial. “I can’t have a trial without a lawyer,” he said.

Perkins realized the police were feeling pressure. It was just before Christmas and the protesters were hampering shopping.

His lawyer told him to stay there.  “Make ‘em sweat. Christmas Eve—just before nightfall—make bail then,” he told John.

And the protest grew until he was released.

The Brandon Jail

I was managing editor at Christian Life Magazine in the spring of 1970 and had been told about John and the boycott by a missionary doctor who was touring the U.S. to learn what evangelicals were doing about segregation and human rights.

“He’s a Bible-believing minister,” the missionary said.

I was taken aback.

At that time evangelicals claimed that religion was to be separate from government and politics and they should not be involved in civil rights. So, what this young minister was doing was radically different from most evangelicals.

I flew to Jackson in June, a few weeks after that conversation with the missionary. John and Vera Mae met me at the airport, and we drove to Mendenhall, and I stayed with the Perkins for several days. That’s when I learned about the incident in the Brandon jail.

On February 7, 1970, more than a month after the initial arrests, John and Huemmer drove to Tougaloo College near Jackson to pick up Black college students who wanted to participate in the marches scheduled for that day. When about 100 to 150 demonstrators marched through the center of town, some bystanders expressed hostility, but no one was arrested and there were no instances of violence.

The march lasted less than an hour, and activities were monitored by a significant number of police officers. Among the observers was the son of the sheriff of Rankin County and the inspector of the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

After the march through town, 19 Tougaloo students boarded a van driven by Huemmer for the trip back to the college. The route from Mendenhall to Jackson was U.S. Highway 49, a four-lane road with a speed limit of 65 miles an hour.

Huemmer was driving. He testified that he proceeded north at a moderate rate of speed because he was being followed by the rest of the students in a Volkswagen and that he remained in the right-hand lane except twice, when he passed two vehicles.

A passenger in the van testified that the group was followed from Mendenhall by a Mississippi Highway Patrol car and, after crossing into Rankin County near the town of Plain, a highway patrolman stopped the van. That highway patrolman had been assigned to cover one or two  Mendenhall marches and was familiar with the civil rights activities going on there.

He testified that he had eaten supper at his home in Florence and had just come on duty and had followed the van for four or five miles before stopping it.

He ordered Huemmer out of the van, asked for his driver’s license and told him to sit in the patrol car.

Huemmer said that the highway patrolman learned that the group had participated in the Mendenhall demonstration earlier that day. He then made threats that referred to the protests in Simpson County and used his radio to request assistance.

More Mississippi Highway Patrol soon arrived. They ordered the students out of the van. Then they took Huemmer and the students to the Brandon jail.

Another van had not been stopped. The driver of that van returned to Mendenhall to tell what had happened to Huemmer and the students.

When John heard the news, he, Rev. Currie Brown and Joe Paul Buckley set out to make bond for the students and Huemmer.

“Just innocent fools, we were,” John told me. “They set us up. When we got there, we told one of the Brandon marshals standing outside that we’d like to see the sheriff.”

The marshal went to get the Rankin County sheriff, but, “Instead of the sheriff coming to see us, about 12 highway patrol came out and arrested Cur and myself and took us into jail. They almost beat us to death,” John said.

“They began to crack me over the head and to say that this was that smart n—-r. And they began to just beat me and beat me and beat me….  The floor was smeared with our blood.

“Meantime, they got a call over the radio that the FBI was coming, and so they had me mop all of the blood. And when I got through mopping the blood, they had me go into the back room and wash my head. But the FBI didn’t come, and they took my picture and fingerprinted me, and this was when they really beat me.”

There was testimony that when John was lying on the floor severely beaten, law enforcement personnel repeatedly would walk by him and hit him again and then kick him.

Perkins told me the story as he sat in his office late one night during my visit in June 1970. He spoke calmly. He didn’t seem angry. He showed no hate, no hostility.

“When they were taking my fingerprints, one of them took a pistol, put it to my head and pulled the trigger,” he said.  “They were like savages—like some horror out of the night.

“One time they took a fork and bent the two middle prongs down and pushed the other two up my nose until the blood came out.”

Talking about that experience, John said, “The highway patrol is there with themselves as God. They can do what they please. We’re really at their mercy.”

Eventually John and the rest of the group were released, and a civil rights attorney in Jackson called a news conference.

“I believe that’s the reason I’m alive today,” Perkins said. “Mississippi people saw the welts on my head. I didn’t scream and show hostility, and the people of Mississippi believed that what I said happened, did happen.”

However, that is not how Perkins would have acted if his life had not changed in that Brandon jail.

“I was so angry that if I had had a grenade, I would have pulled the pin and killed us all,” he said. “But I realized that that anger was as bad as the anger of the police and highway patrol.”

In that experience in the Brandon jail, John understood that there’s something built into humans that makes us want to be superior.

“If the Black man had the advantage, he’d be just as bad. So, I can’t hate the white man,” he said. Our problem, he said, is “a spiritual problem—Black or white.”

Today, John refers to his life since then as the road from the Brandon jail because that is when he started on the road to forgiveness.

At the end of my visit, before he took me to the airport, John and I stopped at the office of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. I saw photos of John with his eyes swollen nearly shut and bruises all over his head.

At 93 years of age, John believes the beating in the Brandon jail should be downplayed.

“I don’t tell many people what happened because I wouldn’t expect them to believe it,” John said. “I wouldn’t expect good Americans to believe how the police and highway patrol had that thing planned and how those people acted.

“Most white Christians don’t want to believe this,” he said. “They close their eyes to it because, if a white person minds his own business, he goes up the ladder. He doesn’t get in trouble. So, they figure that a Black guy who gets in trouble isn’t obeying the law. And the press plays up this protest thing so much that it sounds like some more people just trying to get away with something.

“America has the power and the mechanics to do the job, if it will face the problem. I don’t believe our leaders should listen just to the noisy guys. They would not be leaders if they did. I believe that Black and white Christians will be able to deal with today’s problems.”

After the stories on John were published, church groups wanted to know more about him, and he demonstrated an uncommon ability to communicate with wisdom.  The publicity enabled John to expand the ministry.

As a result, in 1981, Christianity Today wanted to publish an article on him and asked me to spend several days with John and Vera Mae. By then, Voice of Calvary included a housing cooperative, three Christian health care centers, an International Study Center and a network of thrift stores. The study center developed young people into leaders through on-the-job training in Voice of Calvary ministries.

“I don’t believe that I have to leave my destiny to a white man,” John said at breakfast during that visit. “If you believe the Gospel, you accept a positive message. When that Gospel is preached, then God’s power is let loose in a community. That is our only hope for a bad-looking situation—not white men or Black men, but God’s men.”

Jon Forman of Switchfoot with a sign citing the words of John Perkins.
Jon Forman of Switchfoot with a sign citing the words of John Perkins.

He was talking about forgiveness.

As we stood up to pay the bill, a lieutenant from the Jackson Police Department left where he was sitting and approached us.

“Rev. Perkins, you doing all right?” the officer asked.

“Were you at Lynch Street when we had the festival?” John asked.

“No, I had another assignment that day, but I heard it was a success,” the lieutenant said.

In 1981 there was an incident on Lynch Street, near Jackson State University. Someone had called that she was being chased by a person with a gun. Several minutes later another caller reported gunshots. When Patrolman Billy Hickman and his partner arrived, a man opened fire, killing Hickman.

Voice of Calvary sponsored a festival on Lynch Street that attracted 4,000 attendees.  Merchants displayed their goods in booths on the street. The Voice of Calvary choir sang, bands played, and there were speakers. As a result, crime was greatly reduced during that weekend.

“The police and city officials are so appreciative of what we are doing,” John said.

“I explained to the lieutenant that it is time for Black and white folk to take positive action in support of police action.  Instead of always being negative, we need to affirm the police when they do what is right.”

We walked back to the car and drove to Highway 49, going south toward Mendenhall and New Hebron.

“The initiative that brings a policeman to a scene usually doesn’t come from the policeman,” John said. “So, police often overreact.

“We at Voice of Calvary want to attack the problem in the community, not the symptom that results in police brutality or police fatalities.”

John and I spent most of that morning in New Hebron, visiting the health center and talking with staff members. Just before we left for Mendenhall, we walked to a little alleyway where a town policeman had shot and killed his brother in 1946. John was 16 and admired his older brother, a World War II veteran, and the loss was devastating for him.

We drove out of town, stopping several times to pick wild plums by the side of the road while John talked enthusiastically about the fine young leaders at Voice of Calvary.  When we reached Mendenhall, we walked through the health center and visited the modern co-op store.

Back in Jackson, we visited the Thriftco store, and a building on St. Charles Street. A white college student stood facing several rows of Black boys and girls sitting on folding chairs as a Child Evangelism class was beginning.

“Welcome to our Good News club,” they sang. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

They went through motions while they sang. Their faces shone.

Although they were not singing to me, I was glad I was there.

They were evidence of John’s investment in the future. They were evidence of how important it was that John and Vera Mae had given up the good life to return to the state where his brother had been shot by a law officer and where his people were suffering.

When he was a toddler, John’s grandmother affirmed his dignity and helped him understand that he was equal to white people. He used that realization and his Christian faith to teach young men and women to accept others, to not be self-righteous and to love and work with others for reconciliation.

He and Vera Mae have been married 72 years. Together, they have made a difference for thousands of lives, and the Perkins Foundation will celebrate their more than six decades of service at a gala on September 19 at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

It is a celebration of a commitment to reconciliation because of two persons who have learned to forgive.

Will Norton is a senior fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.