Contributor: Josh Buck

I was upset. How could I go 25yrs of my life and never have heard of Dr. John Perkins? Although frustrated, the answer was quite obvious. I am Anglo-American, white-collar, and grew up in a church that was founded out of a Billy Graham crusade. None of which are wrong, but when you live and breath within your own tribe you are deprived of people you otherwise would never meet or learn from. I didn’t have an opportunity to learn about the life and work of Dr. Perkins, so when I did hear about him I was both excited and frustrated. While searching online I found that you either had to buy a copy of Perkins’ life story from a university, read Let Justice Roll Down, or try to put the pieces of his story together through various online videos. It was hard for me to get a full and intimate picture of his life. I told myself, “The man is 86yrs old, how in the world does this not exist?” I took this as a challenge.

In 2013 I had a conversation with a pastor of mine, Michael Martin, about my desire to sit down with Dr. Perkins and get his story on video. I reached out to The John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation to see if it was viable to get him on camera to tell his story. The timing just didn’t work. Years later Drew Jackson and I started TR-BE, in part to tell redemptive stories on the subject of race relations, history, and culture. I reached out to Dr. Perkins’ team again and couldn’t believe that within a week we had the date set to film his story in South L.A. Through the process of producing this film and sitting with Dr. Perkins for 4hrs, there are a few lessons I learned as a young white Christian sitting at the feet of my hero.

Impact of Racism

The story of Dr. Perkins taught me that racism has affected whites just as much as people of color.

In the film, Dr. Perkins describes what it was like to be tortured in prison by two white police officers. Perkins and the black Christian brother who was with him almost died as they nearly suffocated under the heels of these officers. This memory serves as a picture of the stranglehold that the southern system of economic oppression and the racialized world had on people of color. While bleeding from the head as he laid on the prison floor, Dr. Perkins looked up at these men and realized what racism had done to whites. As Perkins gazed into the camera he was speaking about my people. He was speaking about my father, and my father's father, and my great grandfather, and my great-great grandfather that fought for the confederacy. He was speaking about me. I felt a generational connectedness to these men that tortured Dr. Perkins and it moved me to tears.

The racial categories we as whites have so assigned to people of color has created in us a superiority complex towards people of color that has been traced through North American history. No matter how far removed we think we are from this history, or how little we understand this evil in our story, we are affected nonetheless.

Hearing Dr. Perkins talk about racism’s impact on white people was an important part of my journey in understanding the racialized country in which we live. It is easy as a 21st century white Christian to look back on the evils of slavery, or look into the category of race as an outsider, as if we are able accept it or deny it as some out of body experience. God is revealing to me how the racial category of my people has effected me to this very day.

Depth of Pain

While listening to Dr. Perkins recount the personal and historic injustice he had gone through, I realized how little I actually understood the oppression leveled against the African American community. While filming Legacy, Dr. Perkins needed to take periodic breaks to gather his thoughts in response to the difficult topics and questions I was asking. There were many times when I saw the pain and anguish in his face while describing the evils he and his people have endured over the last 250+ years. I sat there nodding my head as a respectful interviewer, knowing full well I had little idea what he had gone through from a personal or emotional perspective.

As a white male, I have no idea what it is like to be black, to be oppressed, or to function within a system that was not built for my benefit. Listening to the nuance of devastation leveled against Dr. Perkins causes me to hold my tongue when I want to say to my friends of color, “I know” or “I understand” or “I feel you…”. The more people of color I grow close to, the more I realize my default position as a white male must be, “I don’t know”, “I hear you but I’m sure I don’t fully understand” or “Help me understand what you just said”. Ironically, getting to know Dr. Perkins' story so well has taught me how little I actually know about the African American story.

Importance of Friendship

When Dr. Perkins left the jail he wanted to preach a gospel that was strong enough to reconcile whites and blacks together. He ended up resenting white people for the hatred, oppression, and violence they had dealt him in the prison cell. Dr. Perkins’ theology and understanding of the gospel was challenged by the personal pain and systemic oppression embodied in his torture. It was a turning point in the the film when Dr. Perkins recalled asking himself the question, “What will help me overcome this spirit of unforgiveness in order to be freed to be a messenger of reconciliation?”

God started sending white people into his life that began to “break him down with love.” First, an Australian doctor helped him recover from the jail torture. After that, God sent a white police officer that began protecting Perkins and the work he was doing during the Civil Rights Movement. They became friends and, over the course of time, began breaking down the walls forged by the evils of white supremacy.

The walls fell down, in part, through white people asking Dr. Perkins, “Is there anything I can do?” “How can I learn from you?” “How can I protect your movement?” I hope that white men and women can learn from this story and seek partnership and solidarity with fellow Christians of color as they seek reconciliation and justice before a God that makes each one of us in His image.