Features

'I saw what hate had done to them'

Special Report

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

February 1970: Police throw John Perkins into the Rankin County jail in Brandon, 30 miles north of his home in Mendenhall, Miss. His crime: helping to organize a civil-rights march. Inside the jail, angry patrolmen box and kick him as they take turns sipping whiskey. As he lies bleeding on the floor, their faces etch a permanent image in his memory: "I saw what hate had done to them and I saw their depravity. But I was also conscious of the depravity in myself. Had I not seen the same thing in me, I would have turned to blame as a comfort. Instead, I saw the truth and the truth was that I also was a bad actor."

Mr. Perkins shares that memory and then makes a confession: Although today he promotes peace, there was a time when he wanted to hate.

Mr. Perkins's mother died of malnutrition shortly after his birth while working on a white man's Mississippi farm. Years later, as a 16-year-old teenager, he watched helplessly as his older brother, a newly decorated World War II hero, died in a scuffle with police in front of a movie theater, according to Mr. Perkins.

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After his brother died, Mr. Perkins fantasized about firebombing those he blamed. Instead, he fled the state at age 17. He married and traveled to California where he made a successful living as a steel plant worker and built a 12-bedroom house for his family. There, he decided that true justice could only exist when blacks had complete control of the political system. He began investigating black separatist cults.

Meanwhile, Mississippi memories haunted him. He could not forget how his father abandoned the family after his mother died, leaving behind five children. When he was 4, he recounts, his father paid an unexpected visit, embracing the young Mr. Perkins. But when Mr. Perkins tried to follow his father home, the man switched him with a tree branch and continued walking. "The need for [that] relationship was a weight I carried, a need that remained unmet for me much of the rest of my life," he later wrote in an autobiography.

Ironically, it was Mr. Perkins's own 4-year-old son, Spencer, who introduced him to an eternal relationship. Although Mr. Perkins had dismissed churches as insignificant institutions that supported racism, in California he allowed his son to attend neighborhood Bible clubs. Every day, Spencer came home talking about the forgiveness of God. At last, curiosity overcame Mr. Perkins, and he took his family to church. There, he met Wayne Leitch, a Presbyterian elder who made Mr. Perkins his protégé: "Here I was, a young guy with a third-grade education, and this old white man teaches me the Bible and says things like, 'You will be preaching all over the United States.'"

Mr. Leitch's predictions came true in 1960 when Mr. Perkins returned to Mendenhall, Miss.-a rural town 40 miles south of Jackson-to test his ideas about interracial Christian cooperation. There, he founded church-run day-care centers, legal centers, and one of the state's first medical centers that allowed both black and white families in the same waiting room.

But not everybody appreciated the progress. Mr. Perkins became a Ku Klux Klan target and received threatening telephone calls. At the same time, one of the only white pastors who publicly supported his community centers committed suicide. Hurt and disillusioned, Mr. Perkins decided he could only preach the gospel to blacks.

A few months later, verbal threats culminated with his 1970 arrest and jailing. But Mr. Perkins's worst moment of suffering spurred his own ability to forgive. As he lay on the jail floor, Mr. Perkins had a revelation: It didn't matter which race had control of the political system because both had a common problem: sin. He later wrote, "Before I demanded justice, but now I saw that God had a better strategy-reconciliation. Only Christ could reconcile men to God and to each other." For the first time in his life, Mr. Perkins had a desire to share Christ with white people also.

So he has spent the next 40 years preaching the gospel through community charity centers across the state. In February 1980, exactly 10 years to the date he was beaten, the Mississippi governor recognized Mr. Perkins as the state's outstanding religious leader of the year. Mr. Perkins credits his success to an "eternal view" of justice: "When I became a Christian, I began to work for the greater good. Before the greater good was my survival. Now the greater good is the kingdom of God."

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