OVER HOT FUDGE CAKE at a Mississippi Shoney’s, Charles Marsh poured out his story, hoping to be relieved of his white guilt. His confessor: community development pioneer and near-martyr of the civil rights movement John Perkins, whose writings had prompted the then-college student to ask hard questions about his Mississippi upbringing.
Marsh, who is now a theology professor and author, was staying with his grandmother, and he didn’t dare tell her about his visits with Perkins. “Although she was a very pious woman,” explained Marsh in an interview, “she held very traditionally Southern views on race. She would have been horrified to know I’d been spending my days with people involved in community organizing and civil rights.”
“She’s a Christian,” Marsh told Perkins. “First thing in the morning she opens her Bible, an old, worn, red Scofield edition, and does her devotions. She prays and listens to sermons on tape. But she won’t give an inch on her racial views. She thinks Martin Luther King was nothing but a troublemaker.”
“Well, he was,” Perkins pointed out.
“She thinks slavery was a good thing!” Marsh had never told anyone this about his beloved grandmother.
Perkins took a bite of his hot fudge cake. “Does your grandmother like blueberries?”
Marsh was bewildered. “I don’t know.”
“I love blueberries,” the then-50-year-old leader said, and in great detail he described all the ways he loved to eat blueberries: freshly picked, over ice cream, in blueberry pie. “I always keep blueberries in my refrigerator. When we get to the house, I’m gonna give you a bag of blueberries, and I want you to take them to your grandmother and tell her they’re a gift from me.”
Marsh was completely disappointed. “It took me years to realize what he was showing me,” he said. “His wisdom was deep, penetrating, profound, eucharistic. ... It tells what lies at the heart of Perkins’ vision.”
Birth of a visionary. Born into a sharecropper’s family in 1930, Perkins was raised by his grandmother because his mother had died of pellagra, a disease caused by malnutrition. He left Mississippi as a teenager to make a fresh start in California after his brother was killed by a police officer. By the late 1950s, he had settled comfortably into a black middle-class community outside Los Angeles with his wife, Vera Mae, and their growing family.
Then their firstborn son, Spencer, upset the apple cart by insisting that his parents come to church with him. Unlike his wife, Perkins hadn’t been raised in church and had never studied the Bible. “Moved by the Bible characters and their stories of hope and overcoming, their fierce human passions,” John Perkins believed the gospel, as Marsh writes about Perkins in The Beloved Community. He “threw himself into the life of faith with the same high-voltage energy he had given to his professional ambitions.” Perkins was soon on his way to becoming a leader in California’s evangelical subculture.
But Perkins couldn’t get Mississippi off his mind. He became convinced that he must carry the gospel to the place he wanted most to forget. So in 1960 the Perkins family returned to Mississippi and settled in the town of Mendenhall to begin an evangelistic ministry. But as they lived and worked alongside their neighbors, Perkins wrote in A Quiet Revolution, they “could not escape the desperate physical needs of many of our people.” They had to see their neighbors “not just as souls but as whole people.” Soon their ministry expanded to include a day-care center, a cooperative store, and other projects to address the needs they discovered.
During his early years as a Christian, he was apolitical, Perkins told Sojourners in a recent interview. Evangelicals “saw civil rights and voting rights as getting in the way. It was more important to get people saved.” But as the civil rights movement gained strength in Mississippi and he saw the intensity of white resistance, Perkins began to rethink his position.
A 1965 visit to his white former employer in California crystallized Perkins’ awareness. They were watching TV coverage of voting rights demonstrators being beaten as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, Alabama. Perkins’ host was outraged. “This has gotta stop!” he said. “He was more concerned with that than with my ministry,” Perkins remembered. “His reaction ignited my own concern.”
Four years later, Perkins was leading a campaign for desegregation, employment of blacks in local businesses, and a living wage for domestic workers, and he was coming to realize that “voting rights were the most peaceful way to bring about enfranchisement for blacks.” But fundamentalists in Mendenhall, both black and white, were suspicious, painting even voting rights efforts as communist activity.
Full inclusion of blacks in Mendenhall society would require whites to yield a measure of economic and political power, something many were unwilling to do. So Perkins’ leadership of a voter registration effort proved to be nearly fatal. In early 1970, police officers lured him to the Rankin County jail in Brandon, Miss., where they beat him nearly to death.
As he slowly recovered from the attack, Perkins discovered that his anger toward whites had been replaced by forgiveness—and a conviction that blacks and whites must be reconciled. Reconciliation soon joined relocation into poor communities and redistribution of resources in what would become the “Three Rs” of the Perkins-founded Christian Community Development Association. “Reconciliation” was the “R” for which Perkins would come to be best known.
“Political, but not party political.” Since the mid-1960s Perkins has been political but—he insists—not partisan. Many people, both supporters and critics, would disagree.
In an interview, Marsh explained that initially many white Christians reacted with suspicion and fear to this “visionary talking about racial reconciliation and economic development, and speaking prophetically to white congregations.” Later, “white evangelicals tried to domesticate him and make him a more-palatable Martin Luther King.” Though some “hoped that Perkins would give them an easier path to justice and reconciliation than King and the civil rights movement did,” Marsh said, “I don’t think Perkins allows that. He makes clear that the harder questions have to be raised.”
Perkins explained his politics in an interview. When he was growing up, “I related more to the original Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. ... I couldn’t have thought of voting for a Democrat as a national candidate.” The Democratic Party was the one shutting African Americans out, and the West Coast Republican leaders Perkins was coming to know supported the civil rights movement.
In those days, though, the South was solidly Democratic, so as Southern blacks became active in politics it was in the Democratic Party. But Perkins could not bring himself to become a full-fledged Democrat because of the party’s abortion stance and the dependence he saw the welfare system creating. On the other hand, he could see that the Republican Party in California was “becoming the same as the Christian Right.” The conundrum continues for Perkins: “I have not felt at home in either party, and I feel less at home every day. When I talk about justice, Democrats like me, but when they hear me talking about economic development, they hear “free enterprise” and think I’m being a conservative Republican. ... People can bash me on both sides. They place me where they want me.”
The place where Perkins is, however, is apparently not where some politically conservative Christian leaders would like to be. In a December 2005 Call to Renewal–organized protest against cuts to food stamps, Perkins was among those arrested for blocking the entrance to a congressional office building. Paul Hetrick of Focus on the Family objected to the demonstration. “It’s not a question of the poor being important,” he told The Washington Post. “But whether or not a baby is killed in the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy, that is less important than the poor? We would respectfully disagree with that.”
Told of Hetrick’s reaction, Perkins was taken aback: “Who said that a baby being killed wasn’t important? ... Being for the poor is not saying you’re for a baby being killed. ... That’s not even logical.”
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told The Washington Post that although there is a biblical mandate “to take care of the poor ... it does not say the government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.” John Perkins objected to this position. “Who would want to see food stamps completely removed?” Perkins asked. “My mother died of a disease that had to do with nutritional deficiency. My mother died of starvation.
“Is the church going to come back and re-establish New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast?” he continued. “Would he be against the government getting involved there? ... Is the church ready to provide benefits for the 30 pills I just ordered that cost $240? Can a poor person afford that?”
Though Perkins connects these leaders’ reactions to a disturbing trend—“Evangelicals got to hate somebody,” he said—he is hopeful for the future. “There is developing a small, emerging generation of people who are radically concerned and not hatemongers, who are trying to live the Christian life above that hatred,” he said. “They are moving beyond race and do not see redemption in the left-wing Democratic Party or the right-wing Republican Party. The new generation will be political, but not party political.”
As for the new generation in his own family, Perkins hopes most that they will carry on his legacy of reconciliation. “We blacks feel very justified in hating white folks because they hated us first,” he said. “I hope my grandchildren can appreciate the struggle of myself and others and see us as being important without having to hate white people.”
Before giving away his blueberries to Charles Marsh’s grandmother, Perkins painstakingly conveyed how valuable they were to him, how thoroughly he enjoyed them, and how he always made sure to have plenty. Among the many messages of Perkins’ gift may be that true reconciliation sometimes requires sacrifice.
Meg E. Cox was a freelance writer and editor in Chicago when this article appeared.