John M. Perkins may be the greatest civil rights leader most Americans have never heard of.
Perkins, who will turn 86 next month, describes himself as a third-grade dropout raised in abject poverty by Mississippi sharecroppers.
Despite the odds, Perkins has written 14 books, received 13 honorary degrees and is an internationally recognized voice on racial reconciliation and what he calls “Christian community development.” The bespectacled, energetic octogenarian will spend the weekend in Raleigh, where he will speak at three churches.
“I’m asking all of us – black and white, Jew and Gentile – to pool our resources together and save our communities, one community at a time,” Perkins said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer this week from his home in Mendenhall, Miss.
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Sponsors of the weekend-long conversation about racial reconciliation are members of the Christian Community Development Association, a nonprofit Perkins co-founded in 1989 with the aim of encouraging Christians to work in the nation’s poorest communities. Each year, more than 3,500 people attend the association’s annual conference.
Organizers say the event is happening at an apt time. They note that it follows the Feb. 29 shooting death of Akiel Denkins, a 24-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Raleigh. That led to protests, rallies and vigils. The event also coincides with recent state legislation that critics say discriminates against select groups, including the requirement that voters show ID and House Bill 2 that forbids local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that protect people who are gay or transgender.
“It’s timely for some of the things that are going on,” said Royce Hathcock, executive director of Neighbor2Neighbor, a community development nonprofit in Southeast Raleigh. “We definitely have been speaking about these things in our circle, about the Denkins shooting and certainly some of the legislation. It happens to coincide with his visit.”
Reggie Edwards, executive director of The Encouraging Place, a woman’s outreach on Rock Quarry Road, said it’s time for Christians from all walks of life to come together and talk, instead of reacting without a plan of action. She said Perkins was the first person she heard talking about racial reconciliation 20 years ago.
“And we’re in the same place. It’s a terrible indictment against Christians,” she said. “We are not united, and we should be. What else is going to happen before the sleeping church wakes up?”
Perkins thinks that the United States has long been caught up in a racial blame game, with much of the finger pointing directed at black and brown people.
“I like to propose that there’s a third race, the human race,” he said. “God breathes into humans the breath of life and that life became a human soul. I think the solution is truth. The Bible is the most complete book I know. I know I can’t get rid of my problems without confessing my sins. We can’t get rid of our problems without confessing our sins to each other. So I’m saying to the people of God, we need to confess that truth.”
Perkins’ life story made him sensitive to the issues of poverty, injustice and oppression.
He was born in 1930 in New Hebron, Miss., a rural cotton community south of Jackson. He was the fifth of six children who survived; his mother died of malnutrition when he was seven months old.
“I was told that she breast-fed me up until the day she died,” he said. “I was probably taking nutrition she needed for her own survival.”
His father left Perkins and his four siblings with their grandmother. Perkins said his grandmother had 19 children and had to give away three of his siblings because she “couldn’t take care of all of us.”
A neighbor who owned a dairy cow brought Perkins milk that helped him survive. The goodhearted neighbor later died a slow death because there was no doctor in New Hebron to treat her.
Perkin’s older brother, a World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart, was shot and killed by a white police officer in 1946 when he returned home to Mississippi. Perkins fled the South for California, vowing to never return. But he did return in 1960, when Mississippi was becoming ground zero of a growing civil rights movement fraught with violence.
The year he returned, Perkins and his wife of 64 years, Vera Mae, founded Mendenhall Ministries. It became the first of many of his ministries that over the decades have focused on creating health centers, thrift stores, low-income housing, job training, day camps, youth internships and college scholarship programs.
Perkins’ first book, “Let Justice Roll Down,” became a religious best-seller. He was tortured, jailed and repeatedly harassed while leading civil rights demonstrations in Mississippi. In 1983, he established the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development, which eventually became the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation. The volunteer foundation is now housed in Jackson, Miss., with satellite centers at three universities.
Perkins said he’s moved by issues of poverty, injustice and oppression, but also inspired by the possibility of seeing his mother, who he never knew.
“Each day of my life I look forward to Heaven because I have never seen my mother,” he said. “I imagine she will say, ‘What did you do for other people like me?’ I would like for her to say, ‘Well done.’ Naturally, I want Jesus to say it. But I want her to say it, too. That is a big driving force.”
A weekend with John M. Perkins
Friday, 6 p.m.
Dinner and conversation with Perkins, Christ Our King Community Church, 1500 Old Garner Road, Raleigh.
Saturday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.
“A Historical Perspective of Raleigh: How Now Do We Live?” Edenton Street United Methodist Church, Kerr Hall, 228 W. Edenton St., Raleigh.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
Joint Worship Service, John M. Perkins, speaker. Redeemer Anglican Church & Mt. Sinai Holy Church, 301 S. Swain St., Raleigh.
Cost: $25 for the weekend, or $10 Friday/$15 Saturday.