Charles Marsh: In 1947, your brother was murdered by a police officer of the town of New Hebron. He had returned home from the World War II a purple heart and a decorated, survived extensive combat wounds, and he died in your arms as your uncle, I think, searched for a hospital that would treat African-Americans. You said in your memoir Let Justice Roll Down that your mind was frozen into a numbing blankness and that after that there was rage and anger and you resolved to leave Mississippi once and for all. You ended up in the coastal town of Southgate California, and found work at the Union Pacific Foundry. And after the war, the Korean War, you and Vera May settled in Monrovia, CA, and you gave yourself fully to your twin ambitions: making money and forgetting the bad memories of life in the deep South. You got a job as a janitor in the supermarket chain called “Shopping Bag” and you so impressed the manager with your work ethic that you soon moved up the welding shop and eventually into equipment design. Settling into the comforts of the black middle class, in a spacious new home, you tried not to think too much about Mississippi and the life you had escaped. So why on earth did you and your family move back to Mississippi in 1960?
John Perkins: Yeah. (Laughter). Yeah, it was… that’s a good question. (More laughter). When I came to faith, it was, you know a little bit about that. Growing up without a mother, growing up without a father in our life, growing up in a big extended family, my grandmother had been the mother of 19 children, we was not influenced by Christianity. So the whole idea of my, so many of my cousins would be these three brothers, brothers and sisters, they would all have different fathers, different names. But at least they had their mother. And I was, my mother was dead and my daddy dropped the five of us off there. My grandmother ended up giving away three of them because she just had too many, and they, in the family there. And my, my thought–what was the question following that?
CM: Why’d you go back?
JP: When I came to faith–I know what I was going to say, that I think my behavior was, on the plantation when they would ask somebody to go get water, to go to something, I would always run to get it, if they asked me to do something, because I liked the affirmation that you would get for obedience. And what I discovered, when I came to faith in Jesus Christ, what I discovered was what was missing in my life, and what was my driving force–I was desiring to be love. I had never felt that deep–I find it with my grandchildren, I find it with my own children, I find it sometime–I think I do better with my grandkids than I did with my own kids–I find it difficult to, I want to do it, and I think I do it, I embrace, but I have to intentionally reach out and love. And so I think my driving force in life was to be loved. And that Sunday morning, and of course I’m not a very religious guy, so I don’t use words like “the Holy Spirit told me,” I don’t use that kind of language. That Sunday morning, though, I know it was God who did that. It was that Galatians passage that would just compound to me as the good news of the Gospel. When Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ live in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith in the Son of God loved me.” By this time I recognized that Christ had died, of course for the sin of the world, but it wasn’t necessary for me. But that morning, I realized that there was a God in Heaven who loved me. And it felt like to me that that God embraced me. And I was afraid for this God because I was so contaminated and so sinful and he loved me. He loved me, he gave Himself for me. I think the moment that my life was met, I think probably had a lot to do with my motivation. The longing I felt, what I’d been missing, I felt that I was loved by Holy God. I think that affected me in every area of my life.
And so, after my conversion then to Christ, there was some businessmen in my town. I got connected with them through a lot of events, I got connected with them–see, it was a crucial time for 1957, and 1957 is when there was pivot revival going on within Southern California. In fact, there’s where Billy Graham struck it rich, in Southern California in the midst of that revival. But it was also, what was the point of that revival that made it unique? It was after World War II. The missionaries had gone back to Africa and all over the world, and when I was converted it was during the time of the furlough. So, when I was converted in that environment, there was this passion among the missionaries that was coming back for the black people in Africa. And I had thought, when I was converted–see, I didn’t know nothing about the church, I didn’t understand all of that and I had not had very much black church experience, not any white church experience, of course. But when I was converted and come from my background I thought that what it meant to be a Christian was to be one in Jesus Christ. It was a pivot time, it was a moment it was an environment, it was a people. And they embraced me. It was like they were sensing that there was no blacks in their environment. And for me, I’m living in the black community, and I thought that’s what it meant now to be Christian in society.
And then, they, these men, these businessmen would go up on a Sunday morning–this is why I came to Mississippi. They would go up on a Sunday morning to the prison camps in the Sandemas Mountains out there in Southern California, they’ve got just massive camps out there. And when I went there, they asked me to come and give my testimony there, and I went there and I shared my background, a little of the testimony you’ll here today and tomorrow. And when they were speaking, when I was speaking, right as I got to the end of my talk, probably a 15 minute talk or less, there was, of course, it was too many black people there. You know, I was in suburbia LA, I wasn’t in LA. Arcadia, Monrovia, that area was a suburbia, wealthy area of town. Somewhat for blacks and white, pretty wealthy out there. And so, but when I went there I saw that 80 or 90 percent of those people were young black people. That sort of horrified me. I sort of thought of prison as old men and people like that, here was all these black kids there. And then as I was speaking and was sharing my testimony, two of those young black people, boys in the back, they must have been about 13, they were just beginning to cry and to shake, cry and to shake. This is like my first time, I’m just now sharing my own light and they was so, crying and shaking so, I didn’t know what had happened to them, and as soon as I sit down, I went back there and sit between them. And I asked ‘em, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And they said, “When you was sharing your testimony, you was describing my own life. I grew up without a father.” And here they was in prison. And here they was, speaking my language, I could hear that, they was family from the south like me, speaking this sort of Ebonic like I can speak. And then I, and then I realized, then, that I had lived in Mississippi for all these years–I’m not faulting the Church, because I hadn’t exposed myself to it either–but I hadn’t heard this good news that Christ could deliver. And God made that transfer into those guys’ lives, and it was the first time in my life that I realized that sharing the gospel, that it was possible that God could transfer, transform and take what I had shared and affect other people’s lives. This was a discovery and then I began to say, “Who is it that I–who is like me? I’m a third-grade dropout. Who is like me and where can I go?” And so I began to feel this burden, and by this time, I was a little bit successful, had a nice home and all that kind of stuff, so I think that was a motivating forward. I think, I here–Emmett Till had been killed and there had been a whole re-re-revival of a need in the South, and my own–my Christian experience again woke up my own brother’s experience.
And somehow or another, and, I think two things might have happened to me. I try to sort this out if I’m doing this all the time. I try to sort this out, I think, too, that when you’re striving for something all your life and discover that you have found it–love–I think you need a new challenge. I think that this idea of Jesus saying, “If anyone come up to me, let him deny himself and take his cross and follow me,” I think it’s a part of a building challenge. And I, I think I was fulfilled. There’s a song in the (indistinct) that I can’t sing, but it goes something like this “Hallelujah, I have found him who my soul so long had tried. Jesus satisfied my lonely and through his blood I now am saved.” I think it was a need for a challenge. I think it was a need for–to enter into. I think I was free enough from myself, and I think my little bit of hard work and a little bit of accumulation gave me a little confidence that I was free and that now I could do something. And so, it didn’t become, it will read out like a sacrifice, and what didn’t make it a sacrifice is that Vera May eventually joined with me. And then I felt it, the absolute confidence. I don’t make many decisions–you might think, you might see it–I don’t make many decisions without Vera May saying yes to it. (laughter) And so, she gave me that extra stamina that we can do this, we can do this. So I think it was a combination of, of, of a burden, passion, it was a combination–passion is putting yourself in the same situation that other people are in, so I think those boys did it that morning and they got that kind of exchange that I got one morning, so I think that was somewhat of the call of God upon my life. And so, I didn’t go back with any civil rights ambition. I went back, really, to, to share Christ. To make this, to see whether that transfer can happened that happened to me, could it–and it happened to those boys, could I go back and live among the people and see that transfer? So that was my call.