Victory through persecution in the civil rights movement.
A vivid illustration of this comes from the remarkable life and ministry of Dr. John M. Perkins, founder and leader of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson and Mendenhall, Mississippi. Dr. Perkins testifies that an episode in 1970 taught him that love is stronger than hate. One horrible night in February, he was beaten nearly to death by white police officers. He later stated that God used this experience to give him a real compassion for whites. His story sheds light on how vicious opposition can actually strengthen a righteous cause in its resolve and effects.
During the evening of February 7, two vans were returning African American students to Tougaloo College near Jackson from Mendenhall, where they had participated in a civil rights march. In Plain, Mississippi, a few miles after the vans rolled over the line separating Simpson County from Rankin County, a highway patrol car from Mendenhall pulled over one of the vans. Perkins received a call that the students had been taken to the Brandon jail in Rankin County. He and two pastor friends headed for the jail to set bail for the group. On the way, Perkins admits it occurred to him that this could be a trap. Why else would they arrest only one of the vans? Was it possible they were setting a trap for the leadership of the march?
As they arrived at the county courthouse and jail, a highway patrolman showed them where to park. They were then met by a dozen highway patrolmen in the parking lot. The policemen searched and arrested the three clergymen and immediately began beating them. They were then taken inside the jail, where the nightmare only continued. The local sheriff, five deputy sheriffs, and nearly a dozen patrolmen began beating them. In the subsequent court trial, Perkins described the scene in the jail that evening:
“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 nigger, 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.”
Perkins explains how he attempted to defend himself without retaliating. At one point, he describes how one of the policemen stabbed him with a fork as he continued stomping on and hitting him. Falling in and out of consciousness, Perkins could recall the looks of his attackers’ faces, which he said were so twisted with hate they looked like white-faced demons. This was a turning point in his ministry, as he later reflected on the significance of the event:
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 … 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.
Perkins explains further that for the first time in his life, while he was being battered in that Mississippi jail, he had seen how the white man was a victim of his own racism. For the first time he wanted to bring a gospel that could set him free as well. But he contends that this was only a start, because now he saw the deep-seated bitterness he harbored in his own heart against whites for what they had done to him and his family.
Persecution in this case only intensified and strengthened the very movement the attackers wanted to stop. As Perkins’s testimony illustrates, persecution served a purifying role in broadening his own ministry and made him more effective. For the leadership of the civil rights movement, where civil disobedience was practiced, opposition served only to propel the movement to new accomplishments. This is a story that could be repeated in other contexts, especially in cultures where the church is persecuted by imposing political forces at work.
Christians are called to refuse retaliation and to live in such a way as not only to overcome but transform the oppressors. Though Saul had set his course and would not allow himself to be deterred, David was faithful to what God placed before him, and God was “with” David. As Christians, we must bear testimony to God’s grace in our lives in good times and in bad, and we must remember that a loving response to opposition can transform our enemies, and as Dr. Perkins testifies, transform ourselves as well.