Fifty black students are crowded into a social studies classroom at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi. The teacher introduces the speaker: “Rev. John Perkins is here today. He is a pioneer in community development, and he loves the Lord.” Perkins thanks the teacher, then says, “I’m here to tell you that the easy life is not the best life. The difficult life gives us discipline. Then we can be all that we can be.” Perkins, stooped and graying, seemed small in front of the big blackboard. I could sense that he had faced much personal hurt over the last decade or so. Yet he seemed relaxed and at peace with himself. “My mother died,” he told the students, “and my father was a drunkard and gave my brothers and sisters and me to my grandmother, and we grew up on a plantation in New Hebron.

“Do any of you know what a plantation was?” he asked. Then, without waiting, he explained: “It was another way of holding black people in subjection after Emancipation. But in 1964–5 the system was broken in this state.”

The students were not paying close attention. They were acting as if Perkins were just another speaker; some of them seemed to be daydreaming. “I didn’t really understand economics, but I began to learn when I was about 11,” he said. “A lot of people were beginning to migrate to Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, and Jackson.

“So kids would come back in the fall and tell us about life in other places. We felt bad because we hadn’t been there. So we’d pretend that we’d been to Jackson.”

The students burst into laughter. Here was an honest fellow who was just like them. He admitted he had lied to save ...

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