“Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”
– Amos 5:24, RSV
Back in high school, I eagerly awaited the release of a new album from one of my all-time favorite bands, Switchfoot. In November 2009, they released their Grammy award-winning album “Hello Hurricane.” I eagerly listened through the album and pored over its songs, but it was not until two months later that I would be captivated by one of the album’s – and Switchfoot’s – most powerful songs to date: “The Sound,” also known as “John M. Perkins’ Blues.”
I will never forget the opening scene of the music video, in which lead singer Jon Foreman holds up pieces of cardboard with the song’s dedication scrawled upon them: “This song was inspired by John M. Perkins, dedicated to his ongoing commitment to love the oppressed…” Jon then dramatically reveals the last part of the message on another piece of cardboard, hidden behind the original: “…and the oppressor.” My heart pounded as I read the final words: “John Perkins said it right, LOVE is the final fight.”
The video was full of vintage clips of police dogs and fire hoses spraying protesting civilians. Captivated by its dedication to Perkins’ fight against racism in small-town Mississippi during the 1960s, I later found John M. Perkins’ autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down. In this short book, Perkins tells a candid tale of American racism, his conversion to Christianity, and a fight to both share and live out the Gospel in his racially-divided hometown.
Born in 1930 to a family of sharecroppers in New Hebron, Mississippi, Perkins endured explicit and heinous forms of racism. He and his relatives went through a humiliating system of disrespect and dehumanization at the mercy of local white business owners and government officials. As a teenager, he watched a white town marshal murder his older brother Clyde, recently returned home from Army service. This traumatic experience caused Perkins to leave Mississippi for California, vowing to never return.
Perkins was not raised in a religious home and did not see the need for God in his life due to his frustrations with American Christianity. He viewed the Black church as solely a coping mechanism for African-Americans who could not deal with the world’s reality, and the White church as hypocritical and exploitive for people that looked like him. However, after marrying his hometown sweetheart Vera Mae and starting a family, Perkins underwent a spiritual journey that fundamentally transformed his understanding of Christianity. When his wife began taking their son Spencer to the local church, Perkins was fascinated by the newfound changes and radiance in his son’s life and began to read the Bible out of curiosity.
Perkins describes how God spoke to him through Paul’s letter to the Galatians in verse 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Perkins was intrigued by this new understanding of Christianity, and after a life of struggle unique to being a black man in a white man’s world, Perkins was convicted by the stark difference between his mindset of self-preservation and that of Paul’s utter reliance on God. He was ultimately broken by the message of Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Originally caught between the inadequacies he felt between black and white churches, Perkins then became a Christian. Not long afterward, he felt God calling him back to his hometown to share the Gospel. By June of 1960, he had returned to Mississippi – the land that he had sworn he would leave for good.
Back in the Deep South, Perkins established Voice of Calvary ministries to combat forces that prevented black citizens from voting. One night, Perkins was detained by the police and arrested on false charges by a patrolman who was familiar with some of the civil rights protests that he led. That night in jail, officers ridiculed his civil rights efforts, poured moonshine on his face, and beat him repeatedly. Thankfully, Perkins was released the next day and was able to resist hating those who had wronged him: “They were like savages… Hate did that to them. But you know, I couldn’t hate back… I could only pity them. I didn’t want hate to do to me what it had already done to those men.” And even more amazingly, despite the physical and psychological abuse he had suffered, he still had the power to forgive: “His enemies hated. But Jesus forgave. I couldn’t get away from that. The Spirit of God kept working on me and in me until I could say with Jesus, ‘I forgive them too.’”
Perkins’ achievements in Mississippi demonstrate that Christianity not only justifies the fight for racial equality, but is crucial to obtain true racial justice. Because we are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and called to love one another (John 13:34), no race has the right to claim superiority over another. Christianity provides a vision more beautiful than the world can offer: in the face of oppression, Christianity enables the dehumanized to love the dehumanizer, an irrational and preposterous reaction by the world’s standards. Perkins says it perfectly: “Only the power of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross and the glory of His resurrection can heal the deep racial wounds in both black and white people in America.” He was comforted by the biblical promise that God hears the cries of the innocent and loves the oppressed (Psalm 34:17-18; Luke 4:18-19). Perkins realized that in the same way that his brother Clyde had been wrongly murdered, Christ had been as well. Perkins realized that Jesus too had faced a lynch mob and died on a tree, not unlike too many men in the state of Mississippi. Perkins realized that Jesus had not only forgiven his attackers, but prayed for them and loved them as well. This is the power of Christianity and the compelling nature of Perkins’ story: in the face of hurt and persecution, like Jesus on the cross, we can say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As Christians work to combat racism in all of its forms, Perkins shows us that love and justice are not mutually exclusive. Rather, neither can one exist without the other. Perkins was not wrong to be angry at the injustice that white supremacy had wreaked on his family, and by loving his oppressors, he was not disregarding the sin of racism that was taking place. Rather, forgiveness freed him from hatred and gave him the peace and strength to reach across the color line and minister to his white brothers and sisters in Christ. Despite Perkins’ right to be angry, he never allowed that anger to poison him with hatred; he always responded to persecution with compassion and love. This God-given love is what gave him the strength and ability to forgive the law enforcement officers that beat him in prison, despite his innocence. This love is what enabled him to look at white police officers, not unlike the one who killed his brother, without any bitterness or fear. This love is what made his friendship with a former Ku Klux Klansman possible. This love helps him continue his fight for racial equality, even today, at the age of 85. Simply through the story of his life, Perkins embodies a uniquely Christian model for racial reconciliation and shows us what true radical activism looks like: the fight for justice alongside the active choice to love with a compassion that can only be offered by those who have experienced the redemptive love of Christ.
For those of us today, this fight for justice looks different for different people. Some of us are fighting racism in our own lives. Others are fighting for those they do not know. America today looks different than ever before, and our nation’s racial composition is changing with the increasing presence of different racial and ethnic groups and unprecedented rates of interracial unions and multi-racial children. However, institutionalized racism is still alive and well as evidenced by the police brutality shown on the news, the prison-industrial complex, and job and housing discrimination. For the American church to become the embodiment of radical redemption that she was always meant to be, Christians today must embrace both the struggle for justice and the struggle to love – the model of reconciliation that begins and ends with Christ and the cross.
John Perkins said it right – love is the final fight.
Dami Aladesanmi ’15 lives in Quincy House and studies History and Science with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. He plans to become a doctor and contribute to healing communities physically, socially, and spiritually.