...you know, I’ve never seen a picture of my mother.
Charles Marsh: Dr. Perkins, you were born in 1930, the sixth child to Maggie Perkins, the fifth to survive, and raised on cotton plantations in Simpson County. You wrote in your wonderful memoir, Let Justice Roll Down, that your earliest memory is of a winter afternoon and the close gray sky and a small house on a dirt road. In the memory, your grandmother sits inside the house, sewing a quilt to keep the children warm. You’re standing in the front yard, chopping wood for fire, occasionally carrying small bundles of sticks to the porch. Your family farmed on halves, moving from plantation to plantation with the changing seasons, according to the shifting demands for cheap labor. Like most rural African-American children, you were put to work in the field, picking cotton alongside your grandmother, aunts, cousins and sisters, waking up before first light and returning home after sunset from September to November; riding to and from work in large open-bodied trucks, as you wrote in your memoir, just like hogs and cattle. Can you share with us what the world looked like to you as a child coming of age in this brutal and oppressive society?
John Perkins: Let me see where to start here, and you might want to ask me the question again (audience laughs). No, no, for focus, because again, I got all of that very clear in my mind. I love hot weather, I love, I coulda lived in the California desert. I think it’s because of the harshness and the kind of shacks we live in, the plantation-type houses that had one boarded up and another board. When that board would fall, come off the house, the icicles on the one of them would be on the inside of the house as well as outside the house. And the misery of being cold and the misery of standing by the fireplace, all of those things was vivid to me. But I think what had come alive and what had come alive when I was writing With Justice For All, Let Justice Roll Down, I was talking to an old lady who had been living in the community on the same plantation–no, on another plantation, when I was a (indistinct). And they talk about my mother died of a disease that had to do with efficient, efficiency and they wrote on her birth certificate, in fact that disease has been eradicated. And I was drinking, I was sucking her breast right up until she died, probably taking the nutrition that she needed for her own survival. And then she died and I sat down and this old lady found an old lady who lived down the street and they did have a milk cow. We didn’t have a milk cow because the plantation owner would not allow his people to have milk cows on the plantation. But then she started bringing him, bringing down for me, she tells me this, a quart of milk. And they begin, I was nothing but skin and bone and she began to see me recover, recovery. And I remember her telling me that when we were doing the research and I said to the lady, by his time, you know, I’m pretty well known, I said, “What happened to her?” Then she tells the story of my hometown about this lady died a slow death because they didn’t have a doctor, there hadn’t been a doctor in 12 years in my hometown of (indistinct) and I just sort of said, “That will come to an end.” Of course, we built a health center there. And I guess one of the things that confronts me each day of my life is, you know, I sort of got a funny feeling of looking forward to heaven, you know, I’ve never seen a picture of my mother. And of course I, with Spencer being there, you know, I don’t see it as a bad deal, but what drives me too is I imagine she gonna say to me, my mother, “What did you do for other people like me?” I think, “What did you do for other people like me?” I think that’s, so this idea of the poor, it’s so deeply rooted. I’m not poor, I haven’t been poor since I was an adult and we’ll talk more about that. I was bent on breaking out of that, but I think that that is a big driving forward, because I would like for her to say too, “Well done.” Naturally, I want Jesus to say it, but I would like for her to say it too. In my, so I think now I’m ready for the question. (Laughter).
CM: I think that was a wonderful answer.
JP: Is that-? I think that kind of poverty, it’s that kind of poverty, it’s that kind of condition and it’s also driving me now toward the Mississippi Delta, because now we have a whole generation of people who were victims of that kind of a poverty. And that they, who was much like me, did not get an education. And that now they are in desperate need. Mississippi Delta probably represent, in a sense a little different from it, the Native American reservation. Because of the shape of it, because they in the little town in Mississippi. So that is another one of the driving concerns that I have.