Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book With Justice for All (Regal) by John Perkins. The book tells Perkins’ journey toward finding racial reconciliation even in turbulent times.
That was the night God gave me a real compassion for whites—the night those Mississippi police officers beat me almost to death.
It was Saturday, February 7, 1970, about 6:30 p.m. The sun was just going down. Two vans driven by Louise Fox and Doug Huemmer were returning students to Tougaloo College near Jackson from Mendenhall where they had joined us in a civil rights march. In Plain, Miss., a few miles after the vans rolled over the line separating Simpson County from Rankins County, the highway patrol car that had trailed them from Mendenhall flashed on its blue lights and cut in between the two vans, signaling for Doug to pull over.
A few minutes later our phone was ringing. It was Louise. “The people in Doug’s van have been taken to the Brandon jail.”
Reverend Curry Brown, Joe Paul Buckley and I set out for the Rankin County Jail in Brandon to set bail for Doug and his group.
During the 45-minute drive up highway 49, my mind churned. Why had the policeman let Louise go? To call me?
Was it a trap? Was another ambush waiting for us on highway 49?
We got to the county courthouse and jail and a highway patrolman showed us where to park. We had met no ambush on the highway. We got out of the car and told the patrolman, “We’d like to see the sheriff.”
“OK,” he said. “You stay here and I’ll go tell him you’re here.” Moments later out of the building came not Sheriff Edwards but a dozen highway patrolmen. They searched us, arrested us and even before they got us to the building started beating us. It was an ambush after all!
Inside the jail house the nightmare only got worse. At least five deputy sheriffs and seven to 12 highway patrolmen went to work on us. Sheriff Edwards joined in.
Here’s how I described that scene later in the court trial: “When I got to the jail and saw the people in jail, of course I was horrified as to why we were arrested and when I got in the jail Sheriff Jonathan Edwards came over to me right away and said, ‘This is the smart n*****, and this is a new ballgame. You’re not in Simpson County now; you are in Brandon.’ … He began to beat me, and from that time on they continued beating me. I was just beat to the floor and just punched and really beaten.”
Manorris Odom, one of the Tougaloo students there, testified that Sheriff Edwards beat me so hard that his “shirt tail came out.” During the beatings I tried to cover my head with my arms, but they beat me anyway till I was lying on the floor. Even then they just kept on beating and stomping me, kicking me in the head, in the ribs, in the groin. I rolled up into a ball to protect myself as best I could. And the beatings just went on and on.
It got worse as the night wore on. One officer brought a fork over to me and said, “Do you see this?” And he jammed it up my nose. Then he crammed it down my throat. Then they beat me to the ground again and stomped on me.
Because I was unconscious a lot of the time, I don’t remember a whole lot about the others. I do know that Doug and some of the students were beaten, and that Curry probably suffered the most of any of us.
And I remember their faces—so twisted with hate. It was like looking at white-faced demons. For the first time I saw what hate had done to those people. These policemen were poor. They saw themselves as failures. The only way they knew how to find a sense of worth was by beating us. Their racism made them feel like “somebody.”
When I saw that, I just couldn’t hate back. I could only pity them. I said to God that night, “God, if You will let me get out of this jail alive”—and I really didn’t think I would; maybe I was trying to bargain with Him—“I really want to preach a gospel that will heal these people, too.”
Well, although the students who watched over me through the night in that jail cell were sure for a while that I was dead or about to die, I came out alive—and with a new call. My call to preach the Gospel now extended to whites.
That night in the Brandon jail I had for the first time seen how the white man was a victim of his own racism. For the first time I wanted to bring him a gospel that could set him free. But that was only a start. I still harbored in my heart a deep-seated bitterness against whites for all they had done to me and my family. As my case went through the Mississippi courts and the majority of judges proved to be just as racist as the policemen who had almost killed me, my bitterness grew. There was no justice for a black man!
My beating and the frustration and bitterness that followed took their toll. In July 1970, I had a heart attack. I was hospitalized in Mound Bayou, a small black community where I had helped organize some co-ops. After a partial recovery I found myself back in the same hospital with ulcers. Dr. Harvey Sanders, a black doctor, had to take out two-thirds of my stomach.
Lying in that hospital bed, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about blacks and whites. About how, in a country that claimed to stand for “liberty and justice for all,” a black man in Mississippi could get no justice. I thought about how in Mississippi, “Christians” were the most racist whites of all. How white preachers were in on most of the murders of civil rights leaders. How Sunday School teachers were leading members of the Klan. I thought of how the white “Christian” businessmen supported the whole economic system that exploited blacks. And I began to think that maybe there was only one way to go—to give up on whites and white Christians and just work for me and mine.
I could start a little gospel radio station right there in Mound Bayou that would broadcast to the blacks all through the delta area. I could feature Bible preaching and good gospel music, and Vera Mae and I could live here in Mound Bayou where there were no more than half a dozen whites. We could just leave all that struggle behind us.
But when I was most tempted to give up, about to decide that the Gospel couldn’t reconcile—at least not in Mendenhall—two doctors administered healing to my spirit even as they cared for my body. Dr. Joanne Roberts, one of the few white persons in the center, and Dr. Sanders, a black, were themselves images of hope—living examples of reconciliation.
Hope began to flicker again.
I thought of the white people in Mendenhall who had not bowed their knees to Baal. A few white people in Mendenhall stood out as glimmers of hope. And even when things looked darkest, when I most wanted to run, I couldn’t get away from my new call—God had called me to take the Gospel to whites, too.
The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed. An image formed in my mind—the image of a cross, of Christ on the cross. This Jesus knew what I had suffered. He understood. He cared. Because He had gone through it all Himself.
He too was arrested and falsely accused. He too had an unjust trial. He too was beaten. Then He was nailed to a cross and killed like a common criminal. But when He looked at the mob that had crucified Him, He didn’t hate them; He loved them! And He prayed, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
His enemies hated, but He forgave. God wouldn’t let me escape that. He showed me that however unjustly I had been treated, in my bitterness and hatred I was just as sinful as those who had beaten me. And I needed forgiveness for my bitterness.
I read Matthew 6:14-15 again and again in that bed: “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” To receive God’s forgiveness, I was going to have to forgive those who had hurt me. As I prayed, the faces of those policemen passed before me one by one, and I forgave each one. Faces of other white people from the past came before me, and I forgave them. I could sense that God was working a deep inner healing in me that went far back beyond February 7, 1970. It went clear back to my earliest memories of childhood. God was healing all those wounds that had kept me from loving whites. How sweet God’s forgiveness and healing was!
As soon as that happened, I saw how these unhealed memories had limited God’s will. I recalled a scene from 12 or 13 years before. I was still in California. God had just started talking to me about coming back to Mississippi. It was on one of those days that I went with the Christian businessmen to share my testimony in a prison camp. As the car climbed that Southern California mountain road, I turned to Ed Anthony beside me. “Ed, God is calling me to preach the Gospel to black people.”
“John,” he responded, “God may be calling you to preach the Gospel to everybody—not just blacks.” When Ed said that, I don’t think I fully understood how much he was saying.
I came to Mississippi convinced that because of the historical oppression of my people, God was calling me to preach the Gospel especially to blacks. My whole drive for those first 10 years was to lift blacks from their oppression. I heard the voices calling for black self-determination and black liberation, and I accepted that. What I really wanted in the ’60s was for the white man to leave us alone, to let us be. Because of the hostility, I had very little contact with the white Mississippi community.
Even as I felt this way, I knew in my mind that the Gospel was supposed to reconcile people across economic, racial and social barriers. But that all just seemed theoretical until Brandon. At Brandon, God showed me how racism had psychologically damaged whites just as much as it had blacks. Through those sick men, God showed me the need to take a gospel of love to whites filled with hate.
I was beginning to understand what Ed Anthony meant. The same Gospel that frees blacks also frees whites. You can’t free one without the other. I was beginning to see what Martin Luther King saw long before: Our destiny was tied to their destiny. What liberated me liberated them; what liberated them liberated me.
Demanding our rights had not softened the white community as we hoped it would. Instead, it had stiffened their opposition. Lying there on my bed, I was able to see that confronting white people with hostility was only going to create war. If there was going to be any healing, it would have to take place in an atmosphere of love. I had been trying to demand justice. Now God was opening my eyes to a new and better strategy—seeking reconciliation. I could not bring justice for other people. As a Christian, my responsibility was to seek to be reconciled. Then out of that reconciliation, justice would flow.
Affirmative action, integration and so on might be useful, but they alone were not justice. Real justice would never be achieved by passing laws or going to court. “Many seek the ruler’s favor, but justice for man comes from the Lord” (Prov. 29:26). True justice could come only as people’s hearts were made right with God and God’s love motivated them to be reconciled to each other.
Now that God had enabled me to forgive the many whites who had wronged me, I found myself able to truly love them. I wanted to return good for evil. In my own life God had cleansed away bitterness and hatred and replaced it with love. If He could do that in my life, He could do it in other people too—whether black or white.
From With Justice for All © 2007 by John Perkins. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.