Charles Marsh: I want to touch on something that you said as we move through your story. And thank you so much for your time here, and for the gift of your presence and your wisdom. By the late 1960s, the shape of your ministry in Mississippi had now sort of included the double punch of, you know, salvation and social justice, salvation as personal faith in Christ and engagement in the world justice. And at one point you said “Social action fleshes out the Lordship of Christ. The grace that frees is the grace that forms.” And then in the fall of 1969, you organized a selective buying campaign, a boycott, in the town of Menden Hall, against white business that were discriminating against African-Americans and you paid, yeah, you paid–
John Perkins: They missed that sometimes, you missed that. A young black man had been locked in jail–
CM: That’s right.
JP:–beaten for supposedly having called a white woman on the phone and asking her for a date and they took him to jail and beat him and we wanted to see him. And all of that sort of grew out of that.
CM: By the time you ascended those steps in 1969 in Simpson County to say we, as Ms. Hamer said, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” your journey had come a long way. And you paid a price for that courage. In February of 1970, as you mentioned, you were tortured and beaten nearly to death by a mob of white racist police officials in a jail cell in the town of Brandon, Mississippi. While recovering from these issues in Mountain Bayou at the Tufts Medical Center, you had a kind of vision of Jesus on the cross. And you said, “I might go so far as to say I experienced a kind of second conversion as I lay in that hospital bed. It was a conversion of love and forgiveness.” Well, I don’t want to exploit your generosity and revisit a traumatic experience and to bring those bad memories back, but I wonder if you would be so kind as to talk about the transformations in your life that followed from your arrest and your beating and you recovery.
JP: Yeah, I had–when my two white friends committed suicide, I committed myself word-wise and open, probably, I know testimony-wise, maybe not open, but that I was gonna work for reconciliation. The months following that I sorta neglected that for the development of Dolphus and Oddis and those kids in that community and I left the racial thought out. And I think it was that at night in that Brandon jail I was being tortured that came back to me again, that they had culturized that Gospel. And I made that commitment in jail and I, I realized that I was bribing God as I look back, and I think we do that as we get caught in the trap. I think we think that we have to bribe God. And it’s OK, God can take it. And so I said, “God, if you allow me outta this jail tonight.” When I saw the behavior of those people, they looked like monsters. They looked like horror out of the night as they tortured us. And especially, as people torture people the (indistinct) come out, that they always torture ‘em sexually. And so they tortured us in that jail. And that’s when I said to God, “If you allow me to get out of here alive–which I didn’t think I would–then I want to preach a Gospel that is stronger than my race. I want to preach a Gospel that is stronger than my economic interests. I want to preach a Gospel that could reconcile black and whites together.”
As soon as I got out of that jail, I wanted to forget about that. (Laughter). I didn’t want to hear that anymore. But then, when I was in the Mt. Bayou hospital recovering from the surgery and all that, that was affecting me in the beating, I wanted to read my Bible, but I couldn’t. And almost every time I would open my Bible, it would come to this place in Matthew. Unless you can forgive those who trespassed against you, how do you expect your Heavenly Father to forgive you? And that haunted me. That haunted me. Now, I could feel like I’m a hero now, but after I got out and a few years later we moved to Menden Hall, moved to Jackson. And the crime was so severe in our neighborhood, it was this period when blacks were moving in and whites were moving out. And you know, they call that the time of integration, from the time the first blacks move in and the last whites move out. (Laughter). They can, and so integration was taking place (more laughter) in my community. And the crime was just totally violent. And so what I did was, I got a tent and began to put the tent in people’s yards, big houses, garage, yards, putting the tent in different places. And of course, the policemens all heard about that. And at that point you got 99% white policemen. And one of these men, policemen, was a big guy, over-fat policeman, wrinkle, you know, that’s why people call white folks “cracker” because of the wrinkles that come. So he looked like everything that was stereotype and he wore a police suit. And that was the hardest thing after being beaten, was to see a–to make a long story short, he made a relationship with me. He did anything I would ask him to do. He would send the policemens to escort the people home. He surrounded that tent every time with his police force. He drew out of me some hatred, with his own love and his own deeds of love in that community. God is an incarnation of God. He lives his will out through people. And so, I, you know, I can be history, you know you all put that in the books you all write about that period, but it was, it was people who came along beside of me who embraced my mission. It was always my mission. That has been the weakness out of a great movement like Promise Keepers, a great movement, it never got to create a mission. It stayed in the stadiums and they cried, they did wonderful, wonderful stuff, so I’m not putting that down, but we didn’t move it to–the passion did not move itself into the pain of the people. This old man moved in, in fact Lem was almost being killed by one of those robbers who’d replaced me, that was some of the violence that was taking place in that time.
And so again, that began to, you know, what I had done with my brother being killed, I think when I got to California, become working the mainstream, became a leader, you know, in the business manufacturing world. I think I, I knew this could happen. You know, I knew we could work together as, as, as a people and so this old come and helped me through that period. And it was his love for me that helped to take some of my, he bore some of my pain. See, great leaders for social change, I’m just talking about for social change, gotta enter the pain of the people who have the pain and they bear that pain with the people in the pain. That’s my hot gun there. That’s Martin Luther King. That’s all the great, that’s Cesar Chavez. Leadership today, that’s the apostle Paul, that’s Jesus.