Born and raised in a perfect storm of loss, hatred, racism, and pain, JP was a poster child for the case against injustice. He had every reason to hate and precious few reasons to trust anyone. His life was on a collision course that would echo repercussions around the world.
During the hot summer of 1930 on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, JP was pushed into this world. He would quickly experience racism, class envy, bootlegging, gambling, frequent fighting and more. The family was rough and tough; but some might argue it was the only way to survive the times and the geography.
In addition to their extra-curricular activities, the family spent time tending and picking cotton on a white man’s plantation. When they made it to town, they were expected to stick with their “own-kind” and only go to “their” places. While establishments were nice for the white folk, people of color learned to put up with substandard conditions and segregated facilities. It was just the way things were.
JP lost his mother to malnutrition when he was only seven-months-old. This left an indelible hole in his life that would influence many of his thoughts and choices over the years. He and his five siblings were given to his grandmother where they went to live along with other cousins and uncles. Given the unsustainable situation, his grandmother gave away three of the children. She kept the ones who could make money working the plantation and she kept JP because he was the baby.
His father had left town but came to visit when JP was about four. Dad held JP tightly and called him “baby”. It was the first time in his memory that JP had ever really felt loved. He desperately wanted more of it. He followed his father everywhere he went the next day, finally leading to the train tracks. His father beat JP to keep him from following as he walked down the tracks to leave town, but JP only continued to follow from a safer distance. Finally, one of the family members distracted him and when he turned back his father was gone. JP would later learn that dad’s girl-friend didn’t want anything to do with the children.
Life’s Not Fair
It didn’t take long for JP to learn that it wasn’t only in the family where things were unfair. When he was 12, JP and a friend hired on to a full-day’s work of hauling hay for a white plantation owner. JP was confident that he would earn $1.50 or $2.00. Instead at the end of the long, arduous, hot day, the owner gave him $0.15.
It was an extremely awkward situation. If he protested, he risked being called an “uppity (n-word)” or a “smart (n-word).” He might even get hit. If he accepted, he was afraid he would hate himself for it. Although he finally chose the latter, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would never be treated fairly as long as he had black skin and lived in Mississippi. The economics were simple, the man had all the capital, the land, the hay, the wagon, and the horses. All JP had was his wants, needs and some limited ability to provide labor. Under these conditions, exploitation was all but inevitable.
Death of a Hero
Without a dad, JP became especially attached to his uncle and brother Clyde. He was even more in awe of them following their service in World War II. Clyde came home with a purple heart, combat medals and an honorable discharge. But there was more; Clyde also had new confidence and new expectations which had risen from his experience with the brotherhood of soldiers. Unfortunately, while he had changed for the better, rural Mississippi had not.
About six-months after returning home, Clyde was in town with his girl. For whatever reason, their conversation was loud and attracted the attention of a local Deputy Marshall. Clyde was caught off-guard when the deputy came up from behind and slammed his head with a black jack. Instinctively, the former soldier spun around just in time to grab the weapon before it landed a second time. Stepping back, the deputy fired two revolver rounds into Clyde’s abdomen.
After the local doctors said they had done all they could, JP rode with Clyde to Jackson. Placing his hand on his brother’s head JP told him, “You can’t die!” Clyde could only moan but somehow found the strength to push JP’s hand away as if to say, “This isn’t up to you.” A few hours after checking in at the hospital, JP was notified that his brother was dead.
The fear of retaliation and counter retaliation loomed ominously over the small town. Extra ammunition was given to officers and both whites and blacks were on edge. Many blacks uprooted and moved from the community. JP quickly learned that he was not only being watched by law enforcement, but also by other blacks. People did not want to associate with him for fear they would somehow be entangled in the untenable situation.
With his fears seemingly verified, JP headed to California in 1947. He found a job making $0.98 an hour – the same as white workers. This was a fortune to a black man from rural Mississippi who would have only expected about $20 for a whole month back home.
JP and his crew came up with a process that improved efficiency and production by over a thousand percent. Surprisingly, although owners were making a lot more money, they neglected to share it with the workers who had made it happen; Wages did not increase. JP felt injustice creeping in again, just as it had in the South. The only difference this time, was that it was about economic classism rather than race. JP organized a strike. It was during this time that he began to understand the power of unified action. This would be important and extremely effective in the years to come.
A Good Woman
During a visit back home to Mississippi, JP went to church. It wasn’t because he was really interested in the church itself. He believed that the cultural center of black life was full of the blind leading the blind. He thought the Bible was full of superstition and old wives’ tales. But while JP saw the teaching and leadership of the church as irrelevant, and possibly even somewhat dangerous, it did have one thing he was interested in – young ladies.
When JP saw Vera Mae Buckley, he instantly knew he was going to marry her. They corresponded, and he asked her mother if he “could have her.” Her mother agreed, and they began making plans. He sent $75 to Vera Mae to buy clothes for the wedding and the move to California – more money that Vera Mae had ever seen. After a three-day train ride to California, Vera Mae met up with JP and they were married in 1951.
Finding God & Family
JP was drafted into the Korean conflict. While in the Service, he learned all he could about communism, economics, and more. He was desperately looking for something he could believe in. Following his discharge in 1953 he and Vera Mae welcomed their first child Spencer into the family. As soon as Spencer was old enough, he began to pester JP to attend Bible class with him. JP’s reservations about the church and the Bible slowly melted away as he learned about faith.
Ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1958, JP conducted Bible studies in the community and even preached at some white churches. He and Vera Mae had never been happier. They loved their life in California and JP loved God with all his heart. Disconcertingly, their comfort was not long-lived.
Out of the Comfort Zone
In 1960 JP began to sense God’s calling to return to Mississippi. Vera Mae didn’t want to but felt God was telling her that she would lose JP is she resisted; so home they went. Comfort quickly turned into adversity.
Into the Fire
Upon their return to the South, the couple started some simple tent meetings and focused on youth evangelism. They went into the schools where Vera Mae lead songs and JP taught Bible. Their desire was to help young people find God, hope and education. They earnestly sought to elevate the conditions of the black community and eagerly sought righteousness and justice. JP believed he could teach students, send them to college and have them return to expand and continue the efforts of elevating the community. He brought many into his home who thrived under an atmosphere of love, leadership and personal empowerment.
While this proved to be a very effective model that continues in the lives of many former students, things weren’t easy. JP and Vera Mae were mostly ignored by white churches and were not well received by black churches. Many black pastors felt that JP and Vera Mae’s community approach and messages of personal responsibility and community re-development was not helpful and possibly even dangerous.
By 1962 JP was farming in the mornings and conducting Bible studies in the afternoon. He attracted those who had a deep desire to learn the Bible and live by it. Taking $900 savings, he purchased five lots of land on the outer-edge of the black part of town. They built a house on one lot and began developing the rest for ministry efforts. The couple also became active in black voter registration and integration. They believed they needed to lead by example. If others saw them in the “white’s only” areas, perhaps they would gather the courage to join as well. These activities inflamed racial bigotry in some of the community’s law enforcement and political leaders.
Because many of the black leaders worked for white men, they were afraid that if they stepped too far across the line they would lose their income. JP, being independent of those constraints, had no such reservations. He was quickly appointed a leader in the voter registration movement. He also helped blacks in the community to develop co-ops where they could leverage resources and skills to more easily compete with more successful whites.
In 1969 as civil-rights issues flared around the nation, things escalated into a crisis. Local police arrested three students. It is believed, by those involved, that these arrests were not so much about the students as they were about entrapping JP when he showed up at the jail to bail the kids out. When he arrived, he and the man with him were also arrested. The event provided the establishment’s desired impact – for a time:
“The scary thing about it was, if they could lock up our leader – our hero – then what did that mean for any of the rest of us?” – Dolphus Weary, first person to complete JP’s Youth Program
During the incarceration, an officer bent a fork and stuck it up JP’s nose until it bled. The officer then made JP clean up the mess. Officers beat and stomped their prisoners, leaving a hole in JP’s head and a pool of blood in his skull that the doctors would later have to extract. They repeatedly placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger saying, “I’m going to kill you n*****!” JP thought he was going to die.
Despite all of this, God moved upon JP’s heart. He told God, “…if you get me out of here, I want to preach a gospel that can save these people.” In the cell he was fully committed, but it would be harder to live out when he was finally released and found himself laying in a hospital three-hours from home.
JP struggled to open his Bible. He was angry and inwardly battled hatred for the police who had tortured him. He also struggled against bitterness for the entire white population who – in his mind – allowed the injustice or even worse, advanced it.
He had almost fell to the same fate as his beloved brother, by authorities wearing similar uniforms. It didn’t help his frustration, that every time he did find the fortitude to open his Bible, it always seemed to land in Matthew 6. He continually heard God saying, “If you can’t forgive the people who sinned against you, how can you expect me to forgive you?”
God used the white physicians, nurses and other staff at the hospital to help JP through his physical, emotional and spiritual recovery. While it was true that the people who had mistreated him were white, it was also true that the people who helped him were white. Perhaps it was less about a person’s color and more about their character.
While there were certainly spiritual battles to be won, JP and Vera Mae also recognized the very real physical battles they were facing. The strong wife and mother took charge. While her husband was still suffering in jail, Vera Mae led a boycott of the small community. Young blacks picketed businesses and many others went out of town to shop. The visible protests caused many of the white customers to stay away as well. The primary demand of the boycott was for black employment opportunities in the white-controlled businesses.
Despite the abuse, JP and his friend delayed their bail until the evening of the last shopping day before Christmas to keep pressure at maximum. The boycott continued and grew through February with blacks coming from all over the state on Saturdays, marching, carrying signs and chanting, “Do right white man, do right!”.
Following these horrific events, JP continued to struggle with his attitude toward law enforcement. Again, God had a strategy which was manifested in the unlikely form of a white police officer named King. JP didn’t like King and had no desire or plan to like him. Every time the minister looked at the officer he was reminded of the torture he had personally endured at the hands of others in the officer’s profession not to mention the officer instigated murder of his brother Clyde years earlier.
Despite JP’s ill feelings, the officer persisted. When JP conducted tent meetings, King did everything he could to help. Over time, God melted JP’s stony heart. God had planted and was watering the seeds of reconciliation into a very fertile soil of JP’s heart.
The love, kindness and support of this one white police officer helped JP find a peace with God that would later help him forgive the officer responsible for his torture. One evening while dining, JP and Vera Mae saw the abusive officer and his wife dining across the room. The black couple and their family arose from their table and made their way to their former adversary. They greeted the officer and his wife – and blessed them – Only God!
JP spread the message of reconciliation and justice to other cities in the United States and eventually around the world. The third-grade drop-out has now been recognized with 14 honorary doctorate degrees and has served on multiple boards of large organizations.
After a lifetime of ministry and reconciliation, Dr. John M. Perkins has distilled his many accomplishments down to a simple formula:
Go where the people are and join God in what He is doing among them.
Dr. Perkins is not shy about letting us know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is uniquely designed to bring reconciliation. He tells us that it releases the supernatural and that God will burn through racial and cultural barriers. He cites the biblical test of knowing when the work of reconciliation is accomplished, “We know we have done [the work of reconciliation], when we begin to love one-another.” He also warns us, however, not to get hung up on perfection. He says that reconciliation “…is not a place, it is a process.”
When speaking of redistribution, Dr. Perkins was careful to distance the conversation from the stereotypical “take from the rich and give to the poor” narrative. He says that the first and most important form of redistribution is one of ideas. “[We must understand the] inherent dignity of people and their ability to create wealth.” He says that this is the basis by which resources are made and developed. He also teaches that those who have risen above and beyond their communities should come back to help others do the same, but too often they only come back to exploit their neighbors.
Finally, Dr. Perkins believes that we must fully believe in, and live out the teachings of Jesus. It is only there we can find the reconciliation, righteousness and justice that the world so desperately needs.
Dr. John M. Perkins has been called, “a real broken Prophet.” In a great number of ways, he personifies the Word of God being made flesh in ordinary, broken, and mistreated people. According to our human reasoning, JP had every right to be angry; every right to rebel against an unjust society; every right to hate; every right to demand recompense. Instead, like Jesus, he laid his rights down. He sacrificed his own sense of justice in exchange for a higher, more heavenly kind – Reconciliation. And it has been far more effective than any other approach!
Dr. Perkins uses a Chinese poem to help his team remember their mission as they expand God’s work:
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.” – Lao Tzu
If all of us could be a little more like JP, wouldn’t the world be a much better place to live? Just imagine!
1. Kinnison, Jessica. “Radical Faith: The Revolution of John Perkins.” The Poverty-Crime Connection | Jackson Free Press |Jackson, MS, Jackson Free Press, 17 Dec. 2008, 15:08, http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2008/dec/17/radical-faith-the-revolution-of-john-perkins/.
2. “Perkins, Dr. John.” MS Civil Rights Project, http://mscivilrightsproject.org/simpson/person-simpson/dr-john-perkins/.
3. Passion for Justice. Directed by Roger LeBlanc, performance by John M. Pekins & Dr. Vera Mae Perkins, Novus Vita Productions, 2015. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Passion-Justice-John-Perkins/dp/B0198PQ84E
4. “Dr. John M. Perkins.” The John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, 12 Oct. 2017, http://jvmpf.wordpress.com/dr-john-m-perkins/.