Civil Rights Activist John Perkins
By Lisa Vendenboom June 10, 2020
John Perkins, an author and activist who has written 17 books and served on five presidential task forces, sat down with Religion Unplugged senior reporter Roberta Ahmanson
Born in Mississippi in 1930, Perkins lived through the terrors of Jim Crow and segregation. His older brother, upon returning from World War II, attended a segregated movie with his girlfriend. As he waited on the side of the theater, white police officers accused him of “talking too loud,” Perkins said.
It was routine for police officers to trace the line and hit black people on the head to quiet them down. “Sheriff did not want black folk to be talking out loud because they would be riling white folk,” Perkins said.
When the police officer hit Perkins’ brother, who had just returned from the war, his instincts took over. He turned around and caught the club, and the officer shot him two times in the stomach.
In the wake of the incident, Perkins’ aunts and uncle put him on a one-way train to California, hoping to shuttle him to a safer home. On the other side of the country, Perkins encountered a new life and converted to Christianity.
“I got converted and I would go to this place where the white folk were talking about the black folk, but the good thing was, in California, they were sort of glad I was there,” Perkins said. “They were the ones who made me evangelical, because they were the ones carrying the gospel into all the world… calling it good news of great joy.”
Later, his wife and son attended an integrated Good News Club. When they came home, Perkins would make conversation with his son about the club, asking what songs were sung, what activities were done. His son, who was 3 years old at the time, responded to his father with the words to a hymn he had learned: “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
“I couldn’t have heard that in Mississippi,” Perkins said. “That would have been against the law.”
This basic theological point, that Jesus loves all the little children of the world, shaped Perkins’ perspective on racial reconciliation in America. Christians ought to start with the image of God in all people, and work outward to affirm their dignity in the pursuit of love and forgiveness, he believes.
“All mankind was created to reflect God, to be the looking glass to God. When we look to each other, we are seeing God, and not color coded.” Perkins said. “What we really got to do is got on our knees and ask God to teach us how to love each other.”
In 1971, he was arrested in Jacksonville after a protest. While incarcerated, he was beaten and injured by white police officers. “In that jail I saw the evil of racism in the eyes of those white folks,” he said. “I was bribing God. I said God, if you let me out of this jail cell, I want to preach a gospel that can save us black and whites together.”
But, before ministry, Perkins had to go through a process of healing and forgiveness. He had to “get rid of that hatred” toward those who abused him, he said.
It was the love and care of white and black medical professionals working together that helped mend him physically and spiritually. “They already saw me as the image of something good. They healed me,” Perkins said. “They outloved me when I didn’t want no white folks around me.”
Despite the progress of the last several decades, there is still immense work to be done in the pursuit of justice and equality in America, he believes. In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, the present moment is an opportunity to progress toward unity and reconciliation.
“Love each other. Love one another. For love is from God,” Perkins said. ”Hate was never meant to be used as a value. Hate was never meant to be used as a virtue.”
Liza Vandenboom is a student at The King’s College, an intern at Religion Unplugged, and a religion columnist for the Empire State Tribune.