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For John Perkins, it's black and white

Race Issues | On his 50th wedding anniversary, supporters of a civil-rights giant are honoring the life of a man committed to racial reconciliation. Here's a look at some of his work

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

Thirty-four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., news headlines still reflect racial tension: A 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church-bombing case ended just last month with the conviction of a defiant 71-year-old ex-Klansman who claimed he was going to jail "for nothing." His former wife testified he "lit the fuse" of the bomb that killed four girls: three 14 years old, one 11. Last year, rioters looted Cincinnati streets after police shot an unarmed black man; in Pennsylvania, a mayor wept as he was handcuffed for allegedly giving the order to murder blacks during 1960 race riots. But hope for peace is rising in one of the states most divided during the civil-rights era-Mississippi, where one man has united whites and blacks under the banner of Christ-based community renewal.

The unlikely herald of this separate peace is John Perkins, a third-grade dropout born on a sharecropper's farm in 1930. After watching Mississippi police fatally shoot his older brother in 1946, he fled the state and returned 14 years later only to be brutally beaten by police for participating in a civil-rights march (see sidebar). Despite those painful memories, Mr. Perkins has called for racial reconciliation in line with the teaching of Christ, and that old message has helped Mr. Perkins cross new political lines. His life story was distributed to every Mississippi public school and published by the Anti-Defamation League as part of a racial reconciliation manual. This week, Mr. Perkins's friends and supporters are holding the "Perkins Jubilee," to mark his 72nd birthday, 43rd year in ministry, and the 50th anniversary of his wedding to wife Vera Mae.

Only when men understand that all are sinners equally in need of forgiveness can justice replace racial power struggles, Mr. Perkins says: "Justice asks the question, Who owns the earth? God owns the earth, not blacks or whites. We are all equal stewards of his creation." Under the banner of stewardship, Mr. Perkins retraced his steps through south Mississippi, founding three community centers that unite Christians to care for the poor. WORLD visited those centers on three consecutive days.

John Perkins Foundation Jackson, Miss.

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Mr. Perkins carries out his ideas for faith-based social reform on a former slave plantation that he transformed into a seven-acre community center with a children's park, outdoor chapel, and yellow clapboard offices surrounded by white picket fences. In monthly seminars and through the Christian Community Development Association (a nationwide network of 500 Christian organizations), he trains Christians to transform their own communities.

7:30 a.m.: Mr. Perkins leads a morning Bible study for college-student volunteers. "Why were you born? Ask yourself that," he commands, staring at 12 students assembled around a wooden table. "When I was young, I began to ask why I was born-why my mother died and I survived," he tells the students. "I believe that God intended for me to provide leadership for the poor." Then he issues a challenge: Provide leadership that spurs people to action instead of leaving them in a trap of dependency.

"The black church hasn't responded to that challenge. We have too many 'victim leaders' who say we should blame others," he says, adding that the only way to escape the blame trap is to understand that blacks, whites, and people of other races all require forgiveness.

9 a.m.: After Bible study, Mr. Perkins takes WORLD on a tour of the neighborhood. Rows of vine-covered oak trees do little to protect small brick homes from the sweltering 90-degree heat. Families without air-conditioning sit on couches they have squeezed onto front porches. In the center of the neighborhood is a plywood chapel recently erected by volunteers. Mr. Perkins designed the chapel as part of a community playground in memory of his oldest son Spencer, who died four years ago of a sudden heart attack. "His new birth began my new life," muses Mr. Perkins, explaining that his son's salvation led to his conversion (see sidebar). For that reason, Mr. Perkins includes children's Bible clubs in every community program. "Black-on-black crime has its roots in self-hatred. But we can help children's self-esteem by introducing them to Christ."

12 p.m.: Back at the Perkinses' blue-and-yellow Victorian "guest house," some 20 business owners and pastors hunch over plates of lasagna for the Urban Economic Renewal Leadership luncheon-Mr. Perkins's way of creating dialogue between local clergy and business leaders. The guest list includes several pastors, a computer consultant, the owner of a paralegal firm, and head of Jackson State University's business department. "It's great that Habitat for Humanity comes to build houses, but how come you see mostly white people building them? Where in the heck are all the black people?" asks Ben Minnifield, a young magazine publisher who identifies himself as Mr. Perkins's protégé. "Part of being a believer is becoming a better steward." At least one guest leaves inspired. The paralegal, Georgia McCune, says she plans to pass out fliers at her church inviting people to financial-planning classes.

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