At 90 years of age, John M. Perkins (1930-present) is active still as a minister, civil rights activist, best-selling author, Bible teacher, and philosopher. Despite being a third-grade dropout, he is a man of letters and the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates. He has advised five different U.S. presidents, and serves on several boards, including his own foundation.
John Perkins was born in 1930, the youngest of five children in New Hebron, Mississippi. When he was only seven months old, his mother died of pellagra, a disease caused by malnutrition – in other words, she died of starvation! About that time, his father abandoned the family, and the children were taken in by John’s paternal grandmother. Even so, the three middle children were parceled out among other family members, and only John and his oldest brother Clyde remained together.
During World War II, Clyde served in Germany and came home with a Purple Heart. But his status as a war hero carried no honor in his hometown. In the summer of 1946, Clyde was clubbed and shot to death by the marshal of the town. In the aftermath of that incident, John’s family decided that he would be safer in California. So at age sixteen, he moved west and settled in southern California.
There, John found satisfaction in earning wages that were equal to those of his white co-workers. After two years, he returned to Mississippi for a visit. At that time, he went to church and met Vera Mae Buckley, whom he married two years later. Almost immediately after the wedding, he shipped off to Okinawa for the Korean War.
When he returned from the war, John and Vera Mae set up housekeeping in Monrovia, California, where he had a good job, and they began raising their family, four sons and four daughters. Their son, Spencer, began attending a children’s Bible class, and he invited his parents to go with him to church. John had no religious background, but he and his family found a spiritual home at Bethlehem Church of Christ Holiness. Eventually, John said “Yes” to Jesus and became a Christian.
During the next three years, John became involved in a number of ministries, including children’s evangelism, prison ministry, and itinerant preaching in black and white churches. In 1957, however, God called him to leave California and return to Mississippi: “John, my desire for you is that you go back to Mississippi, because I bear your people witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.”
Moving from California, where he and his family lived safely and prosperously, back to Mississippi, where he would face discrimination and persecution, was difficult for John. But in 1960, in obedience to God’s call, he and his family made that exodus and settled in Mendenhall, a community near New Hebron, where John had been raised.
At first, Vera Mae resisted the call back to Mississippi, but she yielded and fully participated in her husband’s ministry. Together, she and John initiated a long list of projects to meet the spiritual and educational needs of blacks in the community: daycare, Bible classes, Youth for Christ meetings, and evangelistic tent meetings. In 1962, they developed Voice of Calvary Ministries, an umbrella organization that sponsored a Bible Institute and a Leadership Development Center, a thrift store and a health center. In 1965, John supported voter registration efforts in Simpson County. In 1967, the Perkins family resisted the segregation of public schools when two of their children became the first black students to enroll in Mendenhall’s previously all-white high school.
Finally, whites reacted against black dissent. Early in 1970, John traveled to Brandon, Mississippi, to post bail for some friends arrested for demonstrating for their civil rights. The Brandon police ambushed John, threw him into jail, and beat him mercilessly. Through the night, they continued to torture him and his friends. Such brutality brought him close to death before he was released on bond the next morning. The white judicial system never acquitted John of the false accusations made against him, so he was forced to plead guilty to a lesser charge. The stress of his mistreatment by the police and the judicial system led to a heart attack and ulcers.
His prayer during those difficult days was: “Lord, Lord, I want to preach a Gospel that is stronger than my blackness, stronger than my economic drive. I want to preach a Gospel that will reconcile us together.” Following the incident in Brandon, John moved his family to Jackson, Mississippi, where he established a new work while others continued the work in Mendenhall.
Then in 1982, he and his wife returned to California and established the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, which is responsible for many holistic ministries. For decades, John has traveled the nation, advocating for racial reconciliation. In 2018, he spoke at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, saying: “We need each other. Salvation is by the grace of God. It’s God’s initiative. And reconciliation is the very presence of Him. It’s not a side issue, it’s the mission. God is in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself and in us, so we can be a reconciling force.”
I want to recommend two of John’s many books. His autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down, is the source of much of the information that I shared with you today. His final book is titled One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love. If you are interested in racial reconciliation, and you should be, this book is a forceful and yet loving manifesto to the church on how to bring about racial unity in the body of Christ. After all, as John says, the human race is one blood!
John Perkins believes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can release White Americans from bondage to racism and African Americans from bondage to hatred. In 2009, the band Switchfoot wrote the song “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues),” dedicated to his ongoing commitment to love both the oppressed and the oppressor. The central lyric is a fitting tribute: “John Perkins said it right / Love is the final fight.”
Dr. Rex Butler is Professor of Church History and Patristics occupying the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.