John M. Perkins was born in 1930 on a cotton plantation outside of New Hebron, Miss. Orphaned by his mother’s death from malnutrition, Perkins was raised primarily by his paternal grandmother from the age of seven months. Although he did not realize its significance at the time, the loss of both his parents at such an early age would later encourage Perkins in his ministry and mission work for years to come.
Perkins and his family worked as sharecroppers on the cotton plantation where he lived. By the time he reached the third grade, Perkins had stopped going to school. African-American children at that time were only expected to acquire the amount of education sufficient for them to do manual work, such as basic mathematical and reading skills.
Although Perkins had always been conscious of the racial and social injustices African Americans faced in Mississippi, the death of his older brother Clyde in 1947 left an indelible print on his mind. His brother Clyde was a World War II hero, earning a Purple Heart, and no one admired him more than Perkins. Clyde Perkins was shot and killed by a New Hebron police officer after responding to the officer’s derogatory commands.
After his brother’s death, Perkins moved to California and vowed never to return to Mississippi. Upon moving to California, Perkins worked in a foundry, a company where metal is melted and poured into molds. He would often organize union activities to ensure that he and other workers were treated fairly. Perkins served in the army for three years and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for some time. After he returned to California, Perkins became involved in several Christianity-based organizations and ministries, including an outreach program for young people in prisons.
In 1960, Perkins and his family moved back to New Hebron, Mississippi, convinced that he could increase the community and spiritual development in the town where he had been raised. Perkins and his wife started with vacation bible school classes in the summer for children. Following this, he started speaking at the segregated public schools within Simpson County. After six months, the Perkins family moved to Mendenhall so that they could expand their ministries. Perkins founded several organizations including the Voice of Calvary Institute and the Berean Bible Church. Although Perkins always believed it was his purpose to bring his community back to Jesus, he realized that the philosophies of Christianity and the civil rights movement were so intertwined that he had a duty to be vocal – to be a visible leader in the community – in addressing both issues.
By the late 1960s, Perkins became a voice of political and social justice in Simpson County. He organized African-American voter registration in 1965 and led the struggle for the desegregation of Simpson County schools in 1967. Two of his children were among the first African Americans to enter Mendenhall’s all-white public high school. Perkins and others involved in the civil rights movement were faced with many obstacles.
There were several people who opposed, often times violently, the objectives of the civil rights movement and the struggles of activists like Perkins. In The Preacher and the Klansman, Jerry Mitchell narrates Perkins’s journey for civil rights against a backdrop of heightened tensions, violence, and hatred from some white citizens within the community. As a result of his social activism, Perkins was jailed and brutally beaten by police almost to the point of death. In a 1987 interview, Perkins described the emotionally healing process he endured as well as his determination to rid Mississippi of the evils of racism.
It is this determination that steadily fuels Perkins today. He has developed several new programs including the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation & Development in Jackson, Mississippi. He continues to lecture around the country on the issues of social justice and Christianity.
Despite receiving only a third grade education, John Perkins has been recognized for his work and has received seven honorary doctorates from Wheaton College, Gordon College, Huntington College, Spring Arbor College, Geneva College, Northpark College, and Belhaven College. He is the author of nine books including A Quiet Revolution, Let Justice Roll Down, and With Justice For All. Dr. John Perkins continues to teach issues of racial reconciliation and leadership and community development throughout the country.