Charles Marsh: I’m very interested–thank you–I’m very interested in your vision for faith and justice when you returned in 1960 to Mississippi. Spencer told me one time, your son, in a conversation, “When we returned to Mississippi in 1960, we weren’t trying to raise any ruckus.” And yet by 1963, of course, ’64, Mississippi was becoming the spotlight of the civil rights movement. Bob Moses and others of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said that, “Our mission is to crack, you know, the iceberg of southern segregation and Mississippi was the solidmost core of the iceberg of southern segregation.” So civil rights movements came south for that amazing 1964 Freedom Summer project. You once said that when you came back to Mississippi, you didn’t have a whole list of Gospel, you found it sometime after you got back. And I’m very interested to know, what is a whole list of Gospel? And what influenced your move to that Gospel?
John Perkins: I think Mark did a great job this afternoon, Mark Gornik, in terms of that relocation and what that means, that it become contextual. And if you put yourself back into the community of the people and their needs become your needs then that (indistinct).
Well, when I got back to Mississippi, now, given my background, those men who I went to prison camp with, those successful businessmen, they almost like, when I got ready to leave and come back home, theiy’re the ones who undergirded me with small amounts of resources. Later, another church picked up my support, but these guys under-undergirded me to go back there, and they were predominantly white people. And I got back. So, given my discipleship, an old Presbyterian theologian who discipled me and I had to find Christianity in being a disciple, and we have redefined it today. It don’t mean that same thing, what Jesus may have meant to be a disciple and the developing some Biblical principles. So I was a, I was a disciple to him and–what was the question again, now?
CM: You said that you didn’t come back to Mississippi with a whole list of Gospel.
JP: I got it, I got it, yeah.
CM: But a number of things happened in those first few years that made you move from a Gospel that’s with a sole emphasis on personal salvation to a holistic Gospel.
JP: Right, right, right. So I went back there thinking, OK, that the Gospel could burn through those racial barriers. Then I faced the harsh reality. I became the friend of the First Baptist pastor, Dr. Owald, in town. And I, by this time now, about ’64, and this was the hardest time. Three civil rights workers had been killed, the voters right this was a long hot summer and all of that. And I had to discover, and I was working in the public schools, in a sense I was doing chapel programs, the school’s all segregated. And they would bring new buildings. For the first time, they were going from those one and two room houses to having a teacher for every class and consolidating. And so that I got involved with 15 high schools and two junior colleges on a monthly basis of going there, having some place, what we call a chapel. Sometime we call it, like, the recess period that they would gather in the gym, and that was a big thing back there in Mississippi.
But I began to watch and to see the behavior of our people, and the fact that my people had developed, given the misery and the poverty and I want you to understand the hopefulness of our people–they tied education to leaving Mississippi and going off and getting a job. They didn’t tie education to their economic condition in Mississippi. So you’d go to somebody’s house and they’d have all these pictures of these kids on the mantelpiece over the fireplace where they had graduated. And you look down in the house and the pigs and the chickens and the cracks and the cold was there. But they would be bragging about the fact that their children are now in Chicago, New York or somewhere else. And I could see that education wasn’t tied to the reality of the now. And then, as it went on, it become contied to how you could look when you came back to Mississippi, what kind of car you was driving. And so it become tied to an upwards, a symbolic of success, not with any concrete ownership of any assets within a community, so it was no way tied to economic development. It was tied to consumerism and the way things looked. And the way you looked, if you looked like you was prosperous in society. And so that was a short trip, then, to prosperity theology from there.
And so, I began to see what was happening, I remember I said to Vera May, by this time we done started a little movement, a little Bible institute we called it, and Bible studies and Sunday School. We hadn’t started church at this point. And that’s when I said to Vera May one night, this is when it sort of hit me, ‘cause I’m worried about these kids I’m working with. They gonna succeed, but they gonna leave and they gonna have to keep doing that over again, keep doing that over again. And I said to my wife, I said “Honey, if we gonna make it different in Menden Hall, and that’s all I was concerned about right then, if we gonna make it different in Menden Hall, this is what we’re gonna have to do. We’re gonna have to stay in town long enough that we can win some of these young people to Jesus Christ. We got disciple them in our faith, we got to help them get a love for God, a love for themselves, and a love for the community. That’s a bigger love than consumerism and materialism. We gonna help them stay in school, go off to college, get some skills and bring those skills back to the community. And Vera May went to crying. And she said, “I will never have another house.” She saw the significance of that commitment. (Laughter.) Well, the first thing I did was that we, then, with the guys, Dolphus and Oddis and Melvin and all them, we got her a house, we built her a nice house in the community. We got a framing company to come and develop the shell, and we developed the rest of it. The only two-story house, still, in the black community of Menden Hall.
But then, about that same time, I met–now I has an idea, I has an idea. An idea done hit me. And then I met First Baptist pastor, and then I met a Presbyterian pastor in another town. And I began to talk to the Baptist pastor in Menin Hall, Dr. Owald, about what I was gonna do. And he heard it, and he was born in the Mississippi Delta and he had been off to college, probably a Masters degree in theology. And what made us friends, ‘cause that’s the big hurdle. The biggest hurdle in the South was that imperialism and racism was so tied together that they could not think that a black person could be equal enough with them, that would make the friendship. It would always be a patronizing situation. Because reconciliation assumes equality, everything else is patronizing. Everything else, the first truth is that we created in the image of God, each one of us. But somehow, we became friends. I think this is what happened, because I had been discipled. I think I might have been the first black, probably, he’d ever listened to theologically. Because you don’t listen to black preachers for what they say, I was brought out in Jeremiah Wright, the white folk, they don’t go to black churches to hear what they say, they go there to do the music and for some other reason. (Laughter) And, but, in my case, with this friend, I was the first person that he probably ever met that understood theology as well as him. And that sort of shocked him, and only because I’d been discipled in the biblical foundation of truth. And the Bible somewhat holds together if you’ve been discipled (laughter). And so what happened was, this gave us a friendship, not only–it gave us a friendship and not only an emotional friendship, a friendship in terms of mission. And that’s what friendship ought to be. In the friendship, for Christians, ought to be mission. So he wanted to help me to that. It wasn’t a threat either, because that’s a ten-year process I just outlined. And so it wasn’t a threat. And he wanted to help me, and he was so passionate with it, he went back to his church, like any good pastor would, and tried to get his people softened up for it. But they heard him too clearly, and they rejected him. And he committed suicide. A few months later, my Presbyterian friend also committed suicide.
That’s when I began to see what slavery and segregation and racism had destroyed white folks too. I think, we wasn’t operating on that basis. We didn’t know what we was fighting against, you know. And what I could see that the white people had taken this precious Gospel, this love of God, this Gospel that’s supposed to reconcile people to each other across racial and social barriers. We are taking that Gospel and we put it into our racial culture in a way that the Gospel lost its power. And we accommodate racism and bigotry in the church, we accommodate the central truth of the Gospel, that God was in Christ reconciled in the world to himself. And it was the pain, then, of me losing the hope that I realized could be realized. Because in California, I’d experienced that for a little while, for three and a half years after my conversion. And now, so my passion became not just for those–you know, of course I’m passionate, and you’ll hear about it later, about the socio-economic condition, but now I’m passionate about this force, the blindness of this force that is holding us there. And it was the church that was holding us there. And so that’s when I became passionate for that.