The Amazing Journey of John Perkins (part 1)

How one African-American man overcame the deep wounds of racism and found his calling as a man devoted to Jesus' mandate to love one another

(Parental Advisory: Portions of this article may not be appropriate for younger readers).

John PerkinsFor many young people today, “Jim Crow” laws and racial violence seem far removed from their lives and experience. Their understanding of this ugly chapter in American history is limited to fading news photos and grainy film clips. Thus it's hard for them to fully grasp the implications of an era when public drinking fountains were designated “white” and “colored” and a black man could be hanged simply for looking a white man in the eye.

Yet our children should know that this is not all ancient history. Black men were routinely tortured, beaten and lynched without consequence as recently as 30 years ago. America's legacy of racial violence lingers even today; some white men who committed racially-motivated murders in the 1950s are just now being brought to justice for their heinous crimes.

John Perkins’ life story traces an era that many would just as soon forget. But his story is a stark reminder of just how recent — and pervasive — this brand of evil was in our nation in the 20th century. It also brings to mind the famous quote by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

By turns harrowing and heartrending, John Perkins' is a story ultimately about grace and redemption, as one man emerged from darkest despair into the light of hope and spiritual liberation.

Jackson, Mississippi, 2003
He's a speaker, teacher and civil rights leader; the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Assocation of Jackson, Miss., and president of the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development.

He’s 72 years old now, but nothing in the soft lines of Dr. John Perkins’ face, worn smooth like old driftwood, nor in his warm smile and soft-spoken demeanor, begin to suggest the pain, loss and nearly inconceivable cruelty he’s endured in his lifetime. Nor is there a hint of the seething bitterness that once stung his heart like the armies of fire ants that plague the soil of the Deep South.

Born black and poor, and raised in turbulent, racist Mississippi during the middle decades of the 20th century, John was a motherless infant, a neglected child, a victim of racial violence with every reason to be bitter. Then one terrible night, in the midst of a brutal beating at the hands of two white men, John made a plea to God . . . and God heard him.

Here follows the amazing story of one man’s incredible journey from the fear-filled back roads of rural Mississippi to his life today as a man of peace — a man devoted to bringing the races together in the spirit of love and reconciliation . . .

New Hebron, Mississippi, the 1930s
John Perkins was born in 1930, in a small two-bedroom house located on a cotton plantation near the small town of New Hebron, Miss. The house had no indoor plumbing, no running water and no electricity. Its small rooms housed at least a dozen of John’s kinfolk, including his four brothers and sisters.

Theirs was a miserable existence. Their diet consisted primarily of cornbread and fatback, with chicken on special occasions and whatever they could scrounge on their own. As sharecroppers on a cotton plantation during the height of the Great Depression, they did their best to get by, but money was scarce.

John’s family were not religious people; in fact, they supplemented their meager income with gambling and bootlegging. It was a rough life, and hardly a healthy environment in which to raise a little boy.

Seven months after his birth, John’s mother Maggie succumbed to Pellagra — a slow, painful death brought on by severe malnutrition. His father, overwhelmed by the pressure of being sole provider for his family, moved 50 miles away in search of work; John’s grandmother became his guardian.

Though surrounded by extended family, John felt alone and different from the others. The gnawing pain of his father's abandonment left a huge hole in his little soul — a hole that only a parent’s love could fill.

A Joyous Reunion, an Anguished Goodbye
John was 4 years old the day his father returned for a short visit. He spent a night and a day with little John, holding the love-starved boy in his lap, calling him “son” — an endearment he'd never heard before. Nestled in his father’s arms, John realized for the first time what he’d been missing.

As John explains now, “I was an angry child. But I didn’t know where the anger came from. Now I know it was from a lack of nurture. I always felt apart from everybody who lived in that house.”

The short time his father spent with him gave John but a taste of what it meant to have a loving parent. He didn’t want his daddy to leave again.

But it was not to be. His father hugged him one last time and headed down the railroad tracks, back to where he’d come from. In those days, 50 miles might as well have been halfway to China.

Desperate to keep him from leaving, little John ran after his father, trying to attach himself to his leg. His father pushed him away, but John was determined. He ran after him again, tugging at his pant leg. This time, the man pulled a switch from the side of the tracks and whipped John on the behind, scolding him to go home.

John’s aunt finally intervened and pulled the boy back. John watched helplessly as his father’s silhouette disappeared in the distance.

“Looking back on that day," John says, "I realize that sense of rejection has never left me. . . ."

The Mechanics of Oppression
In the Deep South of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s, African-Americans were no longer bound in chains, but bigoted white people made sure that blacks “knew their place.” The psychological shackles were as crippling as any ball and chain.

As Dr. Perkins explains, “Bigoted whites were systematic in maintaining control over blacks with dehumanizing rules designed to take away any sense of manhood or personal identity. We were addressed as 'nigger' or 'boy' — elderly black men might be addressed as 'good ol’ nigger.' When approaching a white man on the street, we were to step off the sidewalk into the gutter, keeping our heads lowered and eyes averted."

Any “uppity” negro who dared to raise his gaze to look a white man in the face risked beatings — or worse. Families were terrorized, dragged away in the middle of the night, even had their homes burned to the ground. If a black man should be caught looking sideways at a white woman, he risked the very worst punishment — lynching.

Even those who followed all the “rules” weren't safe. A black man simply walking down the road could be abducted, dragged into the woods and castrated — simply as part of white man’s initiation rites into the Ku Klux Clan.

John says, “Everything in a black man’s environment told him that whites were superior. Those who played their assigned roles well, perhaps even believing the lies, got along. Those who didn’t buy the lies migrated north, where they found a measure of respect and the chance to make something of their lives.”

Those who weren’t able to escape the South quietly despaired behind the façade of subservience and rehearsed stupidity. The black man’s life was a life of fear and constant frustration.

Early Encounters With Hate
“I was 5 or 6 years old," says John, recalling the first time he became aware of racism. "I remember some white men standing around me and one thumped me on the head, saying rhetorically, 'Who you the father of?'

"The men around him laughed. His question confused me. I remember thinking, I’m just a kid. How can I be anybody’s father?

“In those days, racist white men harbored certain assumptions about black men. During slavery, black men were used as 'studs' to impregnate black women. This fueled the hatred of white men secretly insecure about their own sexuality.

When John was 9, he and his cousin Jimmy one day took a sack of shelled corn into town to grind into cornmeal.

"As we walked down the road into town, a little white boy with a BB gun yelled from his yard, 'I’m gonna’ shoot you, nigger!' We could have beaten up the kid, but we knew if we did, there’d be harsh consequences. So, we just ignored him and walked on.”

A Tragic Day
During World War II, John’s older brother Clyde was drafted into the Army.

“I always admired my brother Clyde,” John says. “He was my role model and mentor. He looked after the little kids."

“Few blacks served on the frontlines during the war (most were placed in support positions), but Clyde served in battle in Germany and England and was wounded several times by the Germans. For his valor, Clyde was awarded several commendations and the Purple Heart."

Clyde returned to New Hebron a decorated hero. But after his extensive contact with the outside world, John says, his brother had a hard time readjusting to his old life.

"His distinguished service also marked him as a 'smart nigger' by whites. Neither did it help that he’d once had the temerity to argue with a white man. That man later became the mayor — and the mayor appointed the sheriff.

“One humid Saturday night, not long after Clyde had returned from the war, he was waiting in the Jim Crow line at the Carolyn Theater. He and some other men were horsing around, showing off for their girlfriends. The sheriff, who was standing nearby, warned, 'you niggers quiet down.'

"Instead of acquiescing, Clyde tried to talk to the officer. The sheriff promptly clubbed Clyde with his baton. When Clyde tried to grab the baton away, the sheriff stepped back, pulled his gun and shot Clyde twice in the stomach.”

The nearest hospital was 60 miles away in Jackson, Miss. John and a few family members piled into a car with Clyde lying in the backseat, draped across their laps.

Then 16-year-old John tried to rub his dying brother’s head, but Clyde pushed his hand away. “I don’t know why he did that," John says, "but I’ve never forgotten it.”

The car sped over nearly 20 miles of gravel road to the main highway. When they finally arrived at the hospital, an unconscious Clyde was placed on a gurney with a blood pressure cuff and an IV drip . . . then left there to die. As John looked on helplessly at his brother’s nearly lifeless body, an unfamiliar rage welled up inside him.

End of Part 1

In part 2, Dr. Perkins tells of his first encounter with Christianity — and the vision God planted in his heart that would change everything.

Article copyright © 2003, Focus on the Family.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

Roberta Rand was a member of the Focus Over Fifty department at Focus on the Family when she wrote this tribute.