Creating the Beloved Community

John Perkins was an early leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

John Perkins was an early leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. For more than 40 years he has pioneered ministries that reunite evangelical fervor with racial and economic justice. Charles Marsh tells Perkins’ story in The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today (Basic Books, 2005), a portion of which appears below.

Perkins turned his attention to implementing the theological vision of building beloved community. There was one problem, however. Aside from a few volunteers who had come south to work with Voice of Calvary, there was not much that was interracial about the Mendenhall, Mississippi ministry. Freedom Summer had captured the nation’s attention and brought hope and change to many Southern communities. Perkins decided that some similar kind of event needed to be organized to attract more white and black activists back to the South, who would work now with a more explicitly evangelical focus and demonstrate the gospel’s power to reconcile the races. He thus launched "Freedom Summer 1971," a three-month period of intensified community building, which would serve as a kind of historical book end for the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, the spiritual complement of the political event, and would serve to enlarge the interracial cast of his Christian movement.

On a national speaking tour, Perkins recruited the volunteers for his ambitious plan: a group of white students from the congregation of an old dispensationalist mentor in California and a pack of militants from the black student association at the University of Michigan. He knew these represented extremes, but perhaps the extremes would better dramatize the miracle of faith-based reconciliation: Bible-believing white and liberationist blacks bringing their skills and convictions to the unfinished work of racial healing in the South....

The white students, armed with the "Four Spiritual Laws" and the Scofield Reference Bible, saw the summer as an opportunity to save souls. They had never paid any attention before to the social causes of oppression or to the complex forces of Southern segregation, and they were not about to start now. "They didn’t have the awareness, the sensitivity to the issues of race and justice," Perkins acknowledged. For their part, the black students from Michigan had prepared for the Mississippi trip by reading Franz Fanon and Eldridge Cleaver and the literature of black power. With their heads full of revolutionary ideas, they declared war on white racists everywhere.

Half the group ended the summer bunkered down in the Jackson headquarters of the Republic of New Africa, sparring with local police and the FBI in a gun battle. (The RNA’s founder, Imari Obadele, and a cadre of black nationalists were arrested for their role in the melee that left one police officer dead.) The other militants turned against the tract-toting evangelists from California, who had not strayed far from the community center in Mendenhall. Freedom Summer 1971 came to an inauspicious end.

Surveying the disaster, Perkins took note: "Here were the fragments of what we believed in coming together - the preaching of the gospel, the social action that met people’s needs, blacks and whites working together. But they were coming together without any mediation. There was nothing to glue them together. The poles were just too far apart. It seemed there could be no reconciliation." Perkins had learned a lesson about the humility of organizing.

Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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