Unfavorable Odds™

25: A Big Life-Dr. John M. Perkins

with John M. Perkins | September 7, 2020
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Dr. John M. Perkins was born in poverty in rural Mississippi and became a leader in the civil rights movement. In 1970, he was tortured by white police officers in jail. Instead of returning evil with evil, God gave him a desire to preach a gospel that could save blacks and whites together.

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Dr. John M. Perkins, a leader in the civil rights movement, was tortured by white police officers while he was in jail in 1970. Instead of returning evil with evil, God gave him a desire to preach a gospel that could save blacks and whites together.

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25: A Big Life-Dr. John M. Perkins

With John M. Perkins
September 07, 2020
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Dr. Perkins:And that’s what started happening to me when I was in the jail and was tortured. I saw evil in those white folks and then I thought about God. I said, “Lord if you let me out of this jail tonight, I’d like to preach a gospel that could save us together.”

Kim: From the FamilyLife® Podcast Network, this is Unfavorable Odds.

Unfavorable Odds is about finding hope and help in those seasons of life when things are pretty tough. Jesus has promised us that whenever we walk through those dark valleys, He’s always with us. We will never have to go it alone. So on each episode of this podcast, we’ll be talking with people who have learned how, during those dark times, to draw their strength from Jesus.

Most of us want to avoid having to suffer at all costs. We try to pray suffering away and we’ll even walk away from the mere threat of impending suffering. You’re about to hear from a man who actually chose a path of suffering.

Yes, you heard right. He leaned into suffering for the sake of his people, so that they would have an opportunity to live with dignity and respect and have access to the freedom and the rights that have long been a part of the American dream. He was a leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi where he experienced brutal beatings at the hands of the police. Why? He was simply seeking after equal rights and justice for the black community.

Dr. John M. Perkins is a man right out of our history books. He is a well-known speaker, an activist and the author of many books including his autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down, and another book called Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win. Dr. Perkins and I sat down for a timely chat about his life and work in the areas of racial reconciliation and justice.

Dr. Perkins, as of this interview, you have just celebrated your 90th birthday and your 70th wedding anniversary. Congratulations!

Dr. Perkins: Thank you, thank you. I’m so grateful for spending the 70 years with Vera Mae and every day I weep in gratitude. How could I have been so lucky? God has been good. [Emotion in voice]

Kim: You’ve seen a lot, and you’ve been through a lot.

Dr. Perkins: Yes, yes.

Kim: If you will, will you take me back in time to what your world looked like when you were born in rural Mississippi.

Dr. Perkins: My mother died when I was seven months old. She died and I lived. I was probably taking the milk that she needed for herself. I was probably draining that out. It’s sort of like—she sort of gave her life. She died and I lived. I think that’s the greatest motivation. I’m looking forward to that day when I see her face to face. Hopefully, we could have a conversation, and I’m excited about it.

I want her to say, “Well done,” and I’d probably take that for my 17 or so honorary doctorate’s degree. Got the sort of like the Academy Award of preaching, Chuck Colson award of all of that, Wilber Force award for my lifetime work. She don’t care nothing much about that. She going to ask me, what did I do for people like her.

After she died, an old lady lived down the street saw me as a little skin and bones, and she brought a quart of milk every day to my house. That milk saved my life. My mind was saved too. [Emotion in voice] That’s another thing, because that milk saved my mind. But I dropped out of school when I was somewhere about the third and fifth grade, but that was my early life.

The first thing I can remember in a house of—we was bootleggers and gamblers—that would be like a dope house today—a lot of children, lot of cousins, born out of wedlock and all of that in the community, and my aunts didn’t get married but they had these babies, my cousins, and I love them dearly—but the first thing I can remember, we was probably playing in the house, all of us, and I probably said—because they was calling their momma, “Momma,” and I remember one of my aunts said, “Your mother’s dead.”

I felt totally alone.

Kim: Dr. Perkins came from a family of sharecroppers which was far from lucrative to say the least.

Dr. Perkins: The sharecropper’s system was like just a step up from the slave system.

Kim: At a young age, Dr. Perkins would learn a hard reality about the economy and how it worked for black people in the south.

Dr. Perkins: I became sort of an economist when I was a boy of about 11 years old. It was during World War II. I worked a day, almost a full day, for a white man who asked me and the other guy to work. We thought we were going to get a dollar, dollar and a half for that day’s work. But he, at the back, he had us to come through the kitchen. You couldn’t come through the living room. Black folks had to go into the back kitchen door; go back out through the kitchen door.

We came in the back kitchen and he paid us. He gave me a dime and a buffalo nickel. I was expecting to get about a dollar, dollar and a half for that day’s work. That’s what it was going back there. I really wanted to throw that 15 cents on the ground.

I hadn’t accepted, “You were nothing, and they were something. They were the master and you was their....” I didn’t fall for that because I remember when we were about two or three years old, the sheriff came and to look for whiskey in our house. But my grandmother said he must have brought it in there so he found a half a pint. Then he said he’s going to take Grandma to jail. She said to the sheriff, white sheriff, “Are you a fool?” She said, “You think I’m going to go to jail with you and leave these children here?”

My dignity was affirmed there and I haven’t lost it. Thank God.

Now it’s not many people grow up in that kind of environment because most people grow up in the back trying to please the white man, because that was what they were supposed to be, inferior. I grew up thinking that I was created in the image of God and I didn’t even know God.

Kim: His confidence in who he was did not match what was expected from a black person in the south during those times. Dr. Perkins’ family would soon feel the need to send him out of state for his own safety. It all started after his brother Clyde came back from fighting in World War II. Clyde was talking with his girlfriend waiting to see a movie.

Dr. Perkins: In his own town, in the alley way of a little theater—the blacks had to go up in the side so they could go upstairs and the white folk went in the front door down there—and the boys were just coming home from the service—that’s a jubilant time—they’d been gone about three or four years fighting for the country—then the police came up behind him and hit him on the head telling them black folks to be quiet.

He turned around as a soldier. I was a soldier. When you become a soldier you believe that you can whip anybody with your hand. You don’t need a gun. They hit him and he turned around and grabbed a club, and the policeman took the other hand and shot him in the stomach two times.

After he was killed, if I was standing on the street with other guys, some of the guys wouldn’t talk to me because they was afraid that I would be planning something. They was afraid that the white man might see him that way. So my family got together and put some money up. I had a cousin in California and went out to California.

I remember the first job I got was they was putting in a whole mechanization system after World War II. It’s when we began to innovate in society. I was the first one to dig the underground ditch that all the machines was going to run in. It was out of that experience in California, a whole new life, a better life, that my dignity was affirmed.

Kim: Dr. Perkins’ dignity was affirmed yet again, but he would soon learn ultimately where that dignity comes from. It came about when his little boy taught him a new song.

Dr. Perkins: The verse that brought me to faith is my little two- or three-year-old boy going to Good News Club and came back saying, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red, brown and yellow, black and white, they all are precious in His sight.” I’m 26 years old. I knew they didn’t sing that in Mississippi. I knew they didn’t sing that in Arkansas because there were little boys and girls had to get the army to get them into school.

Kim: Dr. Perkins, how did your life and your attitude change after you became a follower of Christ?

Dr. Perkins: After I went to the Good News Club, heard that Jesus loves all the children of the world, I got involved in that. After I came to know Christ, I got thirsty for the Bible. The greatest discipleship parable that Jesus proposed was “the sower went out to sow”. He didn’t go out to sow money. The sower went out to sow and the seed was planted and if it fell in good ground, it brought forth more seeds.

James said we could count it all joy when we fall into trials and tribulations. That is where discipleship is at. That is where repentance is at, and you can’t get into the kingdom until you repent. He says when suffering comes it’s anchoring you down. Henri Nouwen said, “You’re ready to do ministry when you can enter into the pain and the passion of others.”

Kim: As you say that, I just think about your life. You have entered into the pain and the life of others and you’ve put your life in danger fighting for the rights and for justice for black people. You fought to end segregation, increase voter registration, gain opportunities for better jobs and living conditions for blacks. Dr. Perkins, what does reconciliation look like and what are some of the benefits you’ve seen from it?

Dr. Perkins: The people that you fall in love with and the people who become your friend, after they become your fruit, they become your joy. There’s a book in the Bible that’s written about that and it’s called Philippians.

That church was started with the jailer beating Paul and Silas and those peoples to a pus and locked them in the cave. God performed a miracle that night. The guy was fixing to kill himself, and Paul said, “Don’t do yourself no harm. We’re all here.”

Then he said, “What must I do to be like you?”

He told him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then he got a pail of water.

Reconciliation is washing the wounds that we have inflicted upon each other! Confessing that before God; washing each other’s wounds!

Kim: As I was reading Dr. Perkins’ book, Let Justice Roll Down, there was a story that really shook me up. It was the week of Christmas in 1969. He was in a store where he witnessed this heated exchange between a young black man and a storekeeper.

Now the black man was trying to pay for his items with a check, but the storekeeper would not accept it. Dr. Perkins says he had been drinking but he was not drunk. He was more like, I guess what we would say now days, he had a buzz. But as he got madder and madder his voice got louder.

Dr Perkins writes, “And Garland who was still yelling was getting farther and farther away from the mandatory, “Yes sir.” I could tell the storekeeper and the other customers were getting annoyed so I suggested to Garland that we give him a ride home.”

They convinced Garland to get into the car, but what they didn’t know is that the storekeeper had already called the police. So as they were driving Garland home, the police pulls him over and puts Garland under arrest for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace.

When Dr. Perkins went back to their community to let Garland’s family know what had happened, he also learned that there was a boy who had been arrested and badly beaten as he came out of church. But it wasn’t until much later that they found out what he was charged for. They claimed he was making phone calls to a white woman asking her for a date and they took him down to the jail and beat him.

Dr. Perkins, I’d like to take you back to the ambush in Brandon. Because as I read that part of your story, it was so powerful for me because I have experienced racism, yes, but I did not have to go through what you and your team went through during that time.

Would you, would you take me back to that jailhouse and describe what it was like for you.

Dr. Perkins: It looked like they might have tricked us in coming to the jail because I would come up to make bond for them and that’s when they met us at the car and got us out of the car. They started beating us on the way to the jail. They started torturing me in that jailhouse. I thought they were going to kill us.

I remember when they stopped torturing us because the FBI was supposed to be on their way and all of that and they stopped. Then they made me wash up my blood from the floor. It was just blood everywhere. Then when I got in that hall to go upstairs, it was two guys who hadn’t beat us. Boy, they tried to beat us all the way up the steps.

It was like I was going in and out of life. That was torture. It was then I said, “Oh, Lord, these are animals. If I had a hand grenade, I would have pulled the plug. I would have been Samson. All the students would have been killed. I’d have been killed, but all those white folks would have been killed too.

It was then I saw that I was broken too. I saw myself as them. My reaction in my heart, I had the capability of killing them. Then that’s when I said, “God, if you let me out of this jail tonight, I want to preach a gospel that could save us together.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned…” 

And he going to say to Nicodemus’ “How can these things be?”—He said, “You’ve got to be born again.” You are born the first time with the Adam’s spirit. You’re born this time with God’s spirit.

Nicodemus was, “How can this be?”

He said, “Because God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believe on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. He sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned; he that believeth not is condemned already.”

I don’t think we read those ideas that we’ve got to be born again. We’ve got to know God in a deeper way, and you confess your sin and you’re just as like you’ve never sinned. So now He’ll invite you to this but if you sin and when you sin, you still have a advocate with the Father. Oh that’s love. What kind of love is this? What kind of love is this that God would make us to be His children? John said that’s who we are.

It haven’t been me hating white folks and getting them over their hate. It’s the fact that they have been washing my wounds too. When I went in the hospital after that, there was white doctors and white nurses and black doctors and black nurses. They took care of me. I didn’t want no white ones around me. They washed my wounds too. They out loved me.

Kim: Do you think love is the key to reconciliation?

Dr. Perkins: Love is the absolute. Justice is number two. Justice comes out of God’s love for us. He so loved us. Don’t kill them.

Black lives matter is “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe. You’re killing me, getting life out of me.” We need to get together—white folk, black folk. Lord, have mercy.

We’re at a crossroad. We’ve got the greatest constitution on paper that ever been thought out. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human kind was created equal to reflect God in that image, and now what are we doing? We keep backing away from dignity—an affirmation of that.

This is a pivot time right now.

I could ask Martin a question, he would always answer—when he came out of jail, beat up on the Pettus Bridge, he would always answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”, “It ain’t going to be the same. When dignity is affirmed, blacks got to love whites; whites got to love blacks. We’ve got to love one another.”

Kim: In your latest book called Dream with Me, it seems like it’s more of a call to action, which is what you’re about, right?

Dr. Perkins: It’s a call to discipleship.

Kim: A call to discipleship. What do you see out there as you tour the country, before the COVID-19 crisis, what did you see out there that gives you hope?

Dr. Perkins: I think the multi-cultural churches was giving me the greatest hope. There’s a group that’s called the Mosaic. There’s a group that’s called the Christian Community Development Association.

Now like Me-Too movement, I’m so glad women are getting a chance. Women have suffered a lot. Black women had to take the burden of us to save us. If I didn’t have Vera Mae, who would I be with a third-grade education? But since I married a PhD English type person, without her what would I’d have been?

I’m grateful. I’m grateful for you. I’m grateful for people who are thinking about these issues. We can make a better future, I think. Just like when trials come, there becomes a opportunity—the problem I can’t solve then I have to call on God. James says, “Count it all joy.”

Kim: Not only have you impacted this nation and this world with your work, but you’ve impacted me and my family personally. So I thank you that I had the honor of living a life that has been far different from yours, but having opportunities that I may not have had had it not been for people like you.

Dr. Perkins: I want to thank you, girl. I want to thank you. You are my reward. You are my joy. That’s what Paul says in Philippians. He says, “The struggle we went through forming this church, we’re getting beat up in jail and all of that, but you’re the first one who helped me. You have been with me.” And he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”

Joy and rejoice is the highest of praise. That’s what motivates me: gratitude, gratitude for having a big life. Oh, it’s been tough. What can I render to the Lord for all of His benefits toward me?

Kim: It really was a privilege to sit down with Dr. John M. Perkins. I mean how often do you get to have a conversation with someone who has made history and who has impacted our history in such a significant way.

As I spoke with Dr. Perkins, I had such a wide range of emotions. There was sadness that he had to suffer to such a great degree just because of the hatred of prejudice men. I also felt a sense of pride as he described this dignity he possessed from childhood—that dignity that would not let him believe that he was any less valuable than white people.

I also felt pain as I heard him describe how he had to wipe up his own blood from the jail room floor after being brutally beaten by corrupt and evil police officers, the very people who are supposed to uphold the law, protect and serve.

There was also this sense of awe that I had when, after having done no wrong yet being tortured and brutalized by men who hated him because of the color of his skin, Dr. Perkins was able to recognize his own brokenness and he asked God to help him to preach a gospel that will save us, meaning black and white people together.

But most of all, I feel grateful, very, very grateful, that Dr. Perkins, and men and women like him, were willing to risk and give their lives so that generations after them, myself included, would have a greater chance of being treated as the image bearers of God we really are.

As I think about the current racial tension our country is experiencing right now, it’s hard. It’s not hard because it’s something new that I’m being made aware of. It’s hard because it’s a reminder of the difficult racially driven mistreatment that my family and I have experienced for years. Sadly, it’s a challenging reality that my two sons were born into. And you know what? You do get tired of it, but you try to ignore it, you try to push through it and sometimes you just have to laugh just to keep from crying. [Emotion in voice]

It is a reality that African Americans face just about every time we walk out the front door. Maybe that’s hard for you to believe. I get that because unless you have very close relationships with African Americans and you’ve been with them when this mistreatment happens or they trust you enough to share their experiences with you, you may never know that it’s an issue at all.

So what do we do about it? In listening to Dr. Perkins story, I took away some key things to think about when it comes to overcoming the sin of racism. First, we can ask God to help us to humble ourselves. Matthew 7:4-5 says, “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,…then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

It’s so easy to see the fault of others, but examining our own hearts first will help us to recognize when our own anger and our own pain is clouding our perspective and hindering our ability to have honest conversations or hear the perspectives of others.

Next, we can affirm the dignity of ourselves and of others. All of us are created to reflect the image of God no matter the color of our skin. When we can really grasp that truth, we will begin to understand the value each of us have in the eyes of God and we will not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but we will think with sober judgement as we read in Romans 12:3.

Then we can love one another. Jesus says in John 15:12 and 13, “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Sometimes loving each other will cost us something. Maybe for some, this kind of love will cost you your friendship or some other hardship in life. But look at God’s love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Let’s look to Him to find the strength to love and be in relationship with others who don’t look like us.

When we develop these types of authentic relationships, we will want to do what’s next which is seek justice for them. You’ll want them to be treated with respect and you’ll want their dignity to be recognized. Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I don’t know, maybe I’m just an optimist, but I believe if we can approach racism and racial reconciliation with these four principles in mind, then we can honor God, we can honor each other and we can honor ourselves as we work towards the oneness that Jesus desires for His church.

If you want to find out more about Dr. John M. Perkins and his books, Let Justice Roll Down and Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, check out our show notes on the Unfavorable Odds page at FamilyLife.com/podcasts. There you’ll also be able to listen to the other podcasts on the FamilyLife Podcast Network.

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Next time on Unfavorable Odds:

Rhonda: He ushered us past our family and friends and into a room and closed the door. He said the most horrific words I’ve ever heard, that Dan died at the scene. At that point, my life shattered.

Kim: That’s Rhonda Robinson, next time.

I’m Kim Anthony. Thanks for listening to this episode of Unfavorable Odds.

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