The Amazing Journey of John Perkins (part 3)

We shall overcome

John PerkinsJohn's wife, Vera Mae, and other family members were shocked by the announcement that he wanted to return to Mississippi. Why, they wanted to know, would John entertain such a notion? They had a good life in California — John's well-paying job, good friends, the respect of their community, a church they loved.

But John eventually prevailed in convincing everyone that this was God's will for his life. Many prominent businessmen, churches and high-profile white Christian leaders in Pasadena helped underwrite John's mission to Mississippi.

Into the Maelstrom
In 1960, John and his family moved to Mendenhall, Miss. They rented a small two-room house and opened the Fisherman's Mission in a small storefront building next door.

Times were changing in Mississippi. The birth of John's ministry coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement. John and Vera Mae discovered a new unrest as blacks began to assert their identity, demanding freedom from Jim Crow laws and white supremacy.

Though his initial mission centered on Bible teaching and child evangelism, John soon realized that in order to be fully effective in his ministry, he must attend as much to people's physical and emotional needs as to their spiritual needs. He understood that if people don't have proper nutrition, Bible teaching alone will not sustain them. This was his "whole person" ministry philosophy.

Over the next few years, thanks to dedication, imagination and the ongoing contributions of white supporters back in California, John and Vera Mae's outreach expanded to include literacy classes, children's nutrition programs, job training and a farm co-op.

The Fisherman's Mission eventually became the Voice of Calvary (VOC) Bible Institute. A new brick building was constructed. An old bus was purchased. Perhaps most significantly, John's evangelistic work became inextricably intertwined with the campaign for civil rights.

Dangerous Times
Those were dangerous days for a black man in Mississippi. A siege mentality had developed among members of the Ku Klux Klan. The "good" old days — when they enjoyed immunity from prosecution for their racist crimes — were fast disappearing. KKK civilian soldiers depended more and more on uniformed local police to send their "white power" message.

One tactic used by racist officers was to pull so-called suspicious cars to the side of the road, rough up the occupants and throw them in jail on trumped-up charges, leaving them at the mercy of sadistic white deputies. The practice had gone on for years in Mississippi, and it took a tragic event to bring national attention to the problem.

Late one night in 1964, three young civil rights workers — two whites and one black — were pulled to the side of a rural Mississippi highway and murdered, their bodies disposed of. The media swarmed in and the FBI was called in to investigate. The decomposing bodies of the three young men were eventually pulled from a muddy earthen dam several weeks later.

"But what the papers never mentioned," John recounts, "were the other 11 black corpses pulled from the river during the search."

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, John spent a lot of time driving around the state registering black voters. He was now recognized as a leader in the movement. As his profile increased, so did the ire of hunkered-down white supremacists.

And they began to watch for an opportunity.

The Snare
By 1970, Mendenhall was a hub of civil rights activity with attorneys and black leaders like Charles Evers making frequent visits. Federal authorities were also on hand to ensure that new civil rights legislation was upheld.

Late in the day on Feb. 8, 1970, two vanloads of black college students, chauffeured by two white VOC volunteers, left Mendenhall after a day of protest and picketing on the main street and town square. Unable to assault the marchers in such a public setting, the white police officers were stirred up like angry hornets.

And they were waiting. As soon as the vans crossed into Rankin County, police pulled them to the side of Highway 49 and ordered everyone out. The black students were lined up and patted down while the white driver, Doug Huemmer, a VOC volunteer, was singled out for special punishment. He was handcuffed, shoved into the back of a police car and cruelly beaten.

Meanwhile, the woman driver, Louise Fox, watched from a distance, then rushed to telephone John. What she didn't know was that she was an unwitting pawn in the sheriff's plan to get his hands on John, whose house and compound were guarded 24 hours a day as a result of death threats and KKK "drive-bys."

The Longest Night
When John got the news, he and two other men immediately left the compound for the Rankin County justice complex. When they arrived, they were surrounded by 12 patrolmen who searched them, then hustled them inside the building.

That's when John realized he'd been set up.

So began the longest night of John's life as a crowd of officers unleashed their pent-up fury on John, his friends and the students. For John, it started with body blows and taunts of "smart nigger," as he curled over in pain. The beating only escalated from there. He was dragged up the stairs to a dark, musty room with cement walls and a bare floor. There they bound him to a chair.

For the next two hours, moonshine and hate flowed freely as the men took their time battering John and his friend Curry Brown about the head with leather blackjacks. Blood poured from John's scalp, but the beatings didn't stop.

When John lost consciousness, the deputies revived him and started all over again. His eyes swelled up, bulging in their sockets. At one point, they shoved a bent fork up his nose.

When a radio dispatcher warned that the FBI might be on their way, his torturers made him stand up and mop up his own blood, then go wash his face — as if his injuries could be disguised with soap and water! When it turned out to be a false alarm, the beatings started afresh.

By now, John was in shock, his body shutting down, going numb. But even as blood washed into his swollen eyes, he was able to register the expressions on his tormenters' faces. He noted the fear and desperation lodged in their own tortured souls.

A strange lucidity came over him — as if he were seeing these men for the first time. An unfamiliar, unexpected emotion gripped him: pity.

John felt pity for these men, so imprisoned by their own hate. He began to pray for them — and for his own depraved soul. As the blows continued to rain down on him, he uttered a silent prayer: Lord, if you will let me survive this, I will devote my life to bringing the races together in love and service to You.

John now explains, "In the book of Nahum, God says He will use the wicked to discipline the righteous. As a Christian, I had learned to cover up my arrogance and condescending nature. I saw those men's anger and hostility, but I also recognized my own depravity. My sinful pride was crushed that night."

When the beatings finally stopped, John was thrown into the jail cell with the black students — who'd also been severely beaten that night. Though they tended to John's wounds, they were certain he wouldn't make it through the night.

An Angel of Mercy
But he did make it. Vera Mae and others were able to raise bail for John, as well as for Curry Brown and the students. John was taken immediately to the hospital to begin what would be a long, difficult recovery.

"At the time," John says, "I felt I'd be justified in keeping my own hate and anger. I had every reason to hate those men for what they did to me.

"But while I was in the hospital, there was a white nurse who looked after me, tending my wounds. She treated me so gently, looked at me with so much love and tenderness. How could I hate all white people when this woman was showing me such compassion"?

It took John many months to recover, and the effects on his long-term health were far-reaching. But recover he did, and the Lord continues to use him in phenomenal ways as an advocate for racial reconciliation and social change.

As he reflects on his incredible life's journey, the lyrics of an old hymn leap to John's mind. Perhaps these words best sum up the faith which fuels every other goal in his life. Softly, he recites them from memory:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave this God I love
Take my heart, Lord, and seal it
Seal it to the throne above . . .

Today, Dr. John Perkins is semi-retired. He's founder of the Spencer Perkins Center for Reconciliation and Youth Development in Jackson, Miss., which oversees a retreat center, urban recreation facilities, low-cost housing and programs designed to minister to felt needs and hungry souls desperate for God's Word.

Dr. Perkins is also chairman emeritus of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), headquartered in Jackson. CCDA is dedicated to improving the quality of life for those in urban areas through Dr. Perkins' philosophy of Christian community development. His "3 Rs" of relocation, reconciliation and redistribution are considered a model for urban community development programs across the nation and around the world.

If you'd like to read the full story of Dr. Perkins' life and witness, or to find out more about CCDA resources, look for his biography entitled A Time to Heal (Baker Books), or explore these Web sites:

John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation & Development

Christian Community Development Association

End of Part 3

If you missed them, be sure to also read part 1 and part 2.

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.