When my family and a team from our ministry moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1972, we purchased several buildings, including a rundown house in one of the roughest and poorest neighborhoods in town. The old house was very big, and we called it the Samaritan Inn. The idea was for it to be a temporary place to stay for people who were visiting from out of town or didn’t have a place to live or were stuck because their car broke down. It wasn’t so much a shelter as it was a guesthouse.
We figured we would mostly reach out to black folks in the area, and we did. But the first people to come to the Samaritan Inn were a white, dirt-poor couple from out of town whose vehicle had broken down. They had no other place to go.
In New Hebron, Mississippi, I grew up around poor whites who felt they were better than blacks and expected us to move out of their way when they were walking down the street. They experienced all of the advantages of being white. They were oppressors, and common knowledge through the years was that in rural areas, poor whites sought to become sheriffs, cops, or guards in order to have some power over society. So we did not have a great relationship with them. At the time, I didn’t realize these whites had also been damaged and that oppressing blacks gave them a sense of worth—a twisted sense of value, no doubt, but in their eyes, value nonetheless.
When our poor white guests arrived at the Samaritan Inn, I was caught off guard. I wanted to treat them like many people want to treat the poor: I was going to buy and prepare them food and even wash their dishes. Such acts of kindness would have made me feel good but also might have made them feel as if they couldn’t think for themselves. My wife, Vera Mae, had a better idea. She said, “Let’s give them money and let them buy what they want to buy and eat what they want to eat.”
To be honest, I had never given a second thought to poor whites. I still regarded them negatively—as redneck, trailer-park trash. The wealthy white people could help me, but what good were the poor whites? But then that couple showed up on my doorstep. My automatic response was to treat them the way whites had treated poor blacks—to patronize them. But these people were teaching me, John Perkins, the guy who was supposed to be leading the church in reconciliation, a lesson in what it really means to be reconciled to one another.
Separation and Resentment
People often ask me if there’s anything I would do differently if I could go back. Like anyone else, I’m aware of mistakes I’ve made, and I’m sure I could have done many things better. But there’s one thing I know I would change if I had the chance to do it all over again: I would do more to help poor whites. I wish I could say that once my eyes were opened, my actions forever followed. But they did not.
I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but in Mississippi the relationship between blacks and poor whites has been complicated for as long as I can remember. Where I grew up, black and white sharecroppers living on the plantation got along with one another, at least somewhat. We would come together to slaughter a hog or help one another out from time to time. People knew one another and got along pretty well—as long as they were out in the countryside.
However, as soon as some of those poor whites got into town, they would act like they despised the very same black folks they were neighbors with. One of these men—Old Henry, we called him—lived out near my grandma’s house. He and his family were very poor. His sister and brothers and aunts all got along just fine with us, and so did Henry, when he was around home. But once he was dressed up and out on the town to shop, he became just as mean and racist as could be. Old Henry never did anything to physically harm anyone—he just didn’t want the whites in town to think of him as being on the same level with us blacks.