John Perkins on racial reconciliation and urban developmentPosted: September 6, 2013
John Perkins, known in the early 1970s as a “a Bible-believing fundamentalist for black power (which overstates things on both ends), has enjoyed a successful career as a mentor to urban workers. Among other things, he founded the thriving Christian Community Development Association. Check out an interview with Perkins here and here.
For more on Perkins, see Chapter 2 of Moral Minority. Here’s a short excerpt from the book:
After witnessing his brother’s shooting death at the hands of a white deputy marshal, Perkins and his wife Vera Mae moved to California, vowing never to return to the South. After a conversion in 1957 to evangelical Christianity in a black holiness church and then growing prominence as an evangelist in the mushrooming evangelical subculture of southern California, Perkins felt an irresistible call to return to the rural areas surrounding Jackson, Mississippi, to evangelize poor blacks. When he returned in 1960, Perkins, concentrating on building a new congregation, at first dismissed the emerging civil rights movement. He had come, after all, to save souls, not stamp out Jim Crow. But as he toured poor black areas like “Baptist Bottom,” “Sullivan’s Holler,” and “Rabbit Road” in a beat-up old Volkswagen wearing ragged blue jeans, faded sports shirt, and dusty black shoes, Perkins noticed the “desperate physical needs of many of our people.” He discovered that “real evangelism brings a person face to face with all the needs of a person. We had to see people not just as souls but as whole people.” Perkins adjusted his approach, and by 1965 he had built a thriving mission which included a day-care center, a gym, a playground, and a cooperative farming store in addition to a church.
As Perkins addressed the spiritual and social needs of his parishioners, he could not escape the obvious link between economic degradation and the southern caste system. His view of the civil rights movement accordingly softened, and Perkins allowed activists to stay at his Voice of Calvary mission during Freedom Summer in 1964. Though his reputation among civil rights activists was mixed in the mid-1960s, Perkins shifted further toward activism after suffering a beating in the late 1960s from white policemen. Faith was politics, Perkins subsequently began to argue. “’New birth in Jesus,” he said, “meant waging war against segregation just as much as it meant putting the honky-tonks and juke joints out of business.” “Racism,” in fact, “is satanic, and I knew it would take a supernatural force to defeat it.” By 1970 Perkins’ active pursuit of racial justice had gained him a reputation as “a Bible-believing fundamentalist for black power.” The emerging evangelical left chronicled his exploits in community development and evangelism, and he eventually became a minor evangelical celebrity, befriended by evangelical luminaries such as Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and Nixon hatchet man-turned-prison evangelist Charles Colson. Senator Mark Hatfield called Perkins “a modern saint.” Starting in the early 1970s he spoke at Billy Graham crusades, political prayer breakfasts in Washington, and InterVarsity’s Urbana conferences. He wrote in the pages of Sojourners, Christianity Today, Decision, Campus Life, and Moody Monthly. His autobiography Let Justice Roll Down became a bestseller, ranking fourth for a time in the 1970s in the sale of religious paperbacks. All the while, whites in Jackson treated him with hostility and indifference, a reality that stunned northern student volunteers who traveled south to work with Perkins.