Friends on both sides


The left wants more taxes and bigger government.

The right wants less of both.

Mississippi civil rights pioneer John M. Perkins has friends on both sides of this debate but thinks the cure for poverty is harder than both sides realize.

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Perkins, who was in Indianapolis recently for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) annual convention, agrees with conservative friends who cite research that a two-parent household is the best anti-poverty program. He also thinks two-parent families need to help create villages to help single-parent families.

He's practiced what he preaches, and it's the theme of CCDA conventions, which move around the country annually.

As an African-American, Perkins grew up in segregated Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s. His brother was shot and killed by police, and he sought a better life in southern California. Conversion to Christ drew him back to Mississippi in the 1960s.

For registering voters, Perkins was nearly beaten to death by police. Consumed with bitterness about lawless injustice, he wrestled with God as he recovered from the beating. By God's grace, he forgave the police who had almost killed him.

The forgiveness cured some ulcers and helped him to move from the 1960s protest style to the task of rebuilding families in the 1980s and '90s through what came to be called Voice of Calvary ministries.

His forgiveness of the police led to wider avenues of reconciliation, with help from the wide readership of his first book, Let Justice Roll Down. He's received honors from Mississippi governors and served on presidential commissions. Several of his eight adult children and grandchildren have joined him in racial reconciliation ministry.

"We saw how difficult it is to help the family when there was no father," he said in an interview. "If you don't have stable families, you don't have the glue you need."

What's needed are substitute dads, as athletic coaches, schoolteachers, and big brothers and sisters.

"When the anchors leave a community, when the elders are not protecting the quality of life, then the children rule. When the children rule, you've got a bad society," he said. "When these children get these weapons, they go crazy. They see hurting people as entertainment."

Now 81, Perkins has had his share of heartache. A son, Spencer, died of a heart attack in 1998, as he was leading in the racial reconciliation work started by his father. His wife, Vera Mae, is not in good health.

He doesn't look back on his life and see himself so much as a civil rights pioneer or community organizer. He has started co-ops and community centers and seen buildings and monuments named in his honor. He's not especially devoted to political debate.

He sums his life in a different and more humble and profound way: "The joy of my life has been the quality of the friends I have had."

That's a key to why he has friends on both sides of the political debate about family.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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