PERKINS, BORN IN MISSISSIPPI IN 1930, had plenty of reason to hate his home state, and white citizens within it: “I was 16 when a white deputy sheriff shot and killed my 25-year-old brother, Clyde, in New Hebron, Mississippi.” Clyde Perkins had recently returned home from fighting in World War II. He and his girlfriend were waiting in a line at the movie theater ticket booth. The deputy sheriff, asserting dictatorial authority, told everyone to shut up. When Clyde and his girlfriend chatted some more, the officer clubbed him over the head. Clyde grabbed the blackjack. The lawman took two steps back, pulled his gun, and fatally shot Clyde twice in the stomach.
Perkins also had reason to hate because of economic exploitation. At age 12 he worked all day hauling hay and expected to be paid $1.50 or $2.00, typical pay for a day. Instead, a white man paid him 15 cents: “I took a long look at what had just happened to me and really began thinking about economics.” Perkins escaped to California five years later, in 1947. In 1957, his son Spencer, at age 3 or 4, came home from Bible classes singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”—red and yellow, black and white—and Perkins began studying how that could be so. He professed faith in Christ.
Perkins in 1960 felt called to move back to Mississippi with his wife, Vera Mae, and their five children. He became a civil rights leader over the next decade, supporting voter registration efforts in 1965 and school desegregation in 1967. In 1969 he led an economic boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall, Miss., that welcomed black customers but not black employees—and the same was true in city government and other companies.
Lawless officers in 1970 beat him because of those efforts, but they hated him all the more because he believed what they should have. Perkins writes in One Blood (2018), “The most terrible thing about the situation in the South was that so many of the folks who were either violently racist or who participated in discrimination and enslavement through unfair and unlawful business practices called themselves Christians.” They knew deep down they were wrong, and that sometimes made them even more brutal.
Perkins says nonviolence didn’t come to him easily: “I had learned to hate all the white people in Mississippi. I hated their control over our lives. … If I had not met Jesus I would have died carrying that heavy burden of hate to my grave. But He began to strip it away, layer by layer.” Perkins learned that “nonviolence takes more strength than violence—and it takes more than just human strength. It takes God’s strength working in human beings to produce self-control, gentleness, and other fruit of the Holy Spirit.”