The Supreme Court’s ruling, officially handed down in 1954, on Brown v. Board of Education loosened the grip of Jim Crow laws. Nineteen months later, police in Montgomery, Alabama, arrested Rosa Parks for not ceding her seat on a city bus to a white male passenger. These events, or somewhere in between, mark the beginning of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America. It was an epochal time in American life, one that reached back into the postwar era and stretched into pop cultural phenomenons like the hippie movement and the British Invasion. The Civil Rights Movement featured mythic American figures, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and Parks.
In that ecosystem, John M. Perkins returned to his home state of Mississippi and began working for Black equality and dignity in a slightly different way. Where King and the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement focused on legal equality for Black Americans — “Equal rights under the law,” was a common refrain — Perkins’ work was at the economic level. And theological. You could fairly summarize his vision like this: Each person needs Jesus and a job.
But don’t confuse Perkins’ strategy for something less than a fight for equality. As he sees it, cultivating dignity and instilling work ethic are part of recalling Americans to a human equality grounded in a truer reality than the United States Constitution.
Since early in the summer, I’ve been talking with Perkins, on the phone and over Zoom, about his life and work, particularly as it relates to the postwar struggle for Civil Rights. In the course of our conversations, he shared the moments that gave shape to his vision for Christian community development, including his own mother’s starving to death and his being beaten near to death while in police custody. Here are those stories in Perkins’ own words.
My mother died of starvation, nutrition deficiency, when I was seven months old. We didn’t have a milk cow because they wouldn’t let us — the sharecroppers — have a cow. It would use up too much of the ground per acre for a cow; we were supposed to farm that land and plant corn on it. My mother was down to skin and bones, then she died. One lady came by my house and saw my grandmother nurturing this baby. Well, she had a milk cow and she brought milk for me to drink. They’d tell me, “Just lay there now.”
My mother died and I lived. I recognize that she sacrificed her nutrition for me to live. That gave me some purpose in life. I’m not walking around without purpose. It also established my work ethic. At 90, I realize I’m going to see her in a few weeks or a few months. She doesn’t care about the fact that I got 16 honorary doctorate degrees. She’s going to ask me what I did for people like her. It doesn’t take much for me to believe that, because I’m going to die. I’m 90. But what a life I’ve had, what a life I’ve had. Oh, Lord. There ought to be some gratitude in this: She died, I lived. What did you do for people like that?
During my life among the poor, I developed a philosophy called the three R’s of Christian Community Development. Relocation. Reconciliation. Redistribution. (1) In order to lift up a community, to dignify it, you have to live among the people, in the community. Living out the gospel means sharing the suffering of our neighbors. Jesus relocated. Reconciliation is the reason for his coming. It’s not first a racial reconciliation, because there is only one human race, but it’s reconciliation to God. And then it’s our mission to share that reconciliation message with the nation. Then there’s what we call redistribution, which comes through our work and our exchange — what we work for, what we take to the market, our goods and services within society. Relocation and reconciliation result in redistribution, or a just distribution of resources. That’s all a part of a whole approach to human responsibility. To live like that is Jubilee.
Jubilee was the day people went free from prison. It was a day Israelites got another chance in life. The best thing for a prisoner, or someone bound up some other way, is that he should be free to be discipled with somebody when he comes out, because he’s already lived restrained and lived not to think, and now he’s got to learn how to think again.
An understanding of economics, for me, came from watching the bootleggers. They had cash. They spent it on getting out of jail and that kind of stuff. They didn’t have much cash. Poor people, but bootleggers have some cash. Because they stole a jacket, pants, jumper. It cost $6 to get that back in those days in the store. Somebody stole it, and we bought it for $1.50, and we sold it for $3. That was a whole lot of markup back then. So I grew up in that environment, and that helped to shape my economic reality. I learned about the importance of economics from watching this bootlegging and from the poverty we lived in as a family.
It was bred in me starting when I was 11 years old during World War II, when all the men were gone. 1941. 1942. 1943. I worked a whole day for a man expecting to get about $1 or $1.50 for that day’s work. And I got $0.15. It was an insult to my intelligence, and I hadn’t even been out there in the world to learn about economics or work value formally. It was an insult to my own sense of worth.
I got my sense of worth, my sense of dignity, when the policeman told my grandma that he was going to take her to jail because they found some bootleg in one of the cots we might’ve slept on while all the men and the women were out working. You got to hear what she said: My grandma said, “You think I’m going to go to jail with you, and leave these children here by themselves? Don’t think about that, white man. And if I was a man I would kick your ass.”
That gave me a sense of self-worth and dignity. The average Black was brought up to lay low. Yes, we all learned the Constitution. Even then, I thought it was a masterpiece of a conception of a nation. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humankind are created equally.” We hoped that it could be like that. But we never thought it was like that. I never thought it was like that.