John M. Perkins, a Christian leader in civil rights, community development, and racial reconciliation, was born on 16 June 1930 in New Hebron, in Lawrence County, Mississippi. After the death of his mother when he was seven months old, he was raised by his paternal grandmother in an extended family that supported itself through sharecropping and bootlegging. During his childhood, Perkins spent most of the year in agricultural work, leaving little time for school. His formal education ended when he reached the fifth-grade level, though Perkins read widely later in life. Shortly after his older brother, Clyde, was killed by a New Hebron town marshal in 1946, Perkins left Mississippi for California. There he worked at a foundry and as a United Steel Workers union organizer. He was drafted in 1951 and spent two years on Okinawa. That year he also married Vera Mae Buckley.
Perkins returned to California and remained interested in issues of racial and economic equality. After becoming a Christian in 1957, he began to integrate his spiritual beliefs with his economic and social concerns. He and his wife returned to Mississippi in 1960 and began to preach a “whole Gospel” that sought both spiritual and economic transformation. He later wrote that he believed God called him back to Mississippi “to identify with my people there, and to help break the cycle of despair—not by encouraging them to leave, but by showing them new life where they were.” In 1961 the Perkinses moved from New Hebron to Mendenhall, the Simpson County seat. There, Perkins founded Voice of Calvary Ministries, which eventually encompassed housing development, after-school tutoring and sports programs, medical clinics, family development and training, legal assistance, a farming cooperative, the Genesis One Christian School, and other community-development activities.
Throughout the 1960s Perkins was a leader in the civil rights movement, organizing marches, demonstrations, boycotts of white-owned businesses, and voter registration drives in Simpson County. In late 1970 Perkins was arrested in neighboring Rankin County, where he had gone to contest the earlier arrest and jailing of eighteen minors associated with Perkins’s ministry after their van was pulled over. Perkins and two other activists were beaten nearly to death by Mississippi Highway patrolmen and other law enforcement officers at the Brandon Jail.
In 1972 the Perkinses moved Voice of Calvary Ministries to inner-city Jackson, where they continued their tradition of marrying evangelism and community development. In 1982 the Perkinses moved to a Pasadena, California, neighborhood that had the state’s highest daytime crime rates and founded the Harambee Christian Family Center (now Harambee Ministries) and later the Harambee Preparatory School. Perkins also founded and organized the Christian Community Development Association, a grassroots network that now encompasses sixty-eight hundred individuals and six hundred churches, ministries, institutions, and businesses in more than one hundred locations across the country, and the John M. and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation, Justice, and Christian Community Development. The foundation operates the Spencer Perkins Center (named for John and Vera Mae Perkins’s son, who died in 1998), which works “to transform lives for Jesus Christ in the crime ridden area of West Jackson, Mississippi.”
Perkins is far better known outside Mississippi than he is inside the state. He has for years been a voice from within the evangelical community critical of its disregard of social and racial justice issues. He has also criticized some civil rights activists for their disregard of the message and power of Christian churches. He refers to racism as “satanic” and argues for confronting injustice and working toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Among Perkins’s many publications are He’s My Brother (1994), Let Justice Roll Down (1976), and numerous books on Christian social action, including A Quiet Revolution (1977), Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (1993), and Restoring At-Risk Communities (1996), Follow Me to Freedom: Leading as an Ordinary Radical (with Shane Claiborne) (2009), and Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (2017).
A number of colleges, including Jackson’s Belhaven University, have bestowed honorary doctorates on Perkins, and in 2006 he was named distinguished visiting professor at Seattle Pacific University. Two years earlier, Perkins and the university created the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development, which “helps students engage in discipleship and become leaders in the areas of justice, community development, and reconciliation.” As an interdisciplinary research institute, the center works “to better understand structural disparities and develop more effective systemic strategies for alleviating those disparities.”
- Charles March, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (2004)
- John Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (1976); John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development website, https://spu.edu/depts/perkins/about/index.asp
- John M. and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation, Justice, and Christian Community Development website, www.jvmpf.org
- Peter Slade, Charles Marsh, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, eds., Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Civil Theology of John M. Perkins (2013)
- Terry W. Whalin, Today’s Heroes: John Perkins (1996)