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.
The poor whites didn’t really have anything going for them except their whiteness and the fact that blacks had to say “Yes, sir” and No, sir” to them. Since that was about all they had, they held on to it real tight. That’s why I developed a strong dislike of poor white folks for a while—they were the ones who did most of the damage to blacks in rural Mississippi. For example, the deputies who beat me in jail were poor whites. They had a little bit of authority and a black man to hate. I was one person who was lower than them in society, and they took out all their anger and fear and insecurity on me.
Many people in the black community weren’t really any better, though. I came from a family of bootleggers, who operated much like those who own a pawnshop today. Our customers were often the poor white folks trying to get some whiskey during Prohibition in Mississippi. It was a complicated situation, because we would give some credence to poor white folks to sell them liquor and get their money, but in reality, we resented them. Religious blacks also would pretend they liked the poor white folks but ultimately resented them too, telling jokes behind their backs and expressing hate for them. The truth is no one really liked the poor whites in Mississippi. They had almost no supporters, except the sheriffs, deputies, and Ku Klux Klan. The poor whites were even forced to have their own churches separate from the wealthy whites. While the wealthy whites went to First Baptist, First Methodist, or First Presbyterian in town, the poor whites had their own country Pentecostal churches. This separation fed their resentment, and often the pastors of these churches were leaders in the Ku Klux Klan.
The wealthy whites also used the poor whites as tools of oppression, making them overseers or guards or sheriffs charged with taking care of the dirty work to keep black people in their place so they didn’t have to. In reality, though, this just fueled the resentment between blacks and poor whites.
You might remember in 2008 when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said that poor white folks “cling to guns or religion.” He was criticized for his politically incorrect comment and should not have made it, but he wasn’t all wrong. For a long time, poor whites like Old Henry and the guards at the Simpson County Jail had a strategy for feeling better about themselves. Having blacks beneath them made them feel superior, but those old ways are rapidly going away. Thinking they were superior was wrong—don’t think I’m saying it wasn’t—but I’ve gotten to where I can feel compassion for them because something they had (or thought they had) is slipping away from them.
Just because some whites use heinous, callous, and abusive language to describe black people does not mean that we, as black people, are justified in responding with racial insults of our own. I can understand how it comes about. We as a people have been beaten down so much that calling poor whites a hurtful name is almost a cry for dignity. I get it.
But it is a backward cry. In a way, it’s an attempt to make poor whites feel the way we did when whites would fling racial slurs our way. But for us to do the same thing to poor whites that wealthy whites were doing to us only throws everyone into the same mud heap. A better way is possible. We all must have the compassion, wisdom, and mutual respect to rise above slander, slurs, and snubs to a place of love. What we ought to be striving for today is a new language of love and affirmation that will replace these hurtful slights. What if we started calling one another “friend,” no matter our race, politics, or economic class? Friends, I like that.
Brothers and Sisters
Until she passed away in early 2000, my cousin Teet and her husband, Hicks, lived out in the country. Sometimes, when I didn’t have anything pressing on my schedule, I’d go down and spend the day with them. Their house and the countryside were a retreat for me. Sometimes we would visit the local church, which distributed food to people in need. While the food was from the government and food networks, this simple operation was run by black folks at the church who had been part of the civil rights movement and knew how to address needs in the community.
Not just blacks came for food. Many poor whites came too. Sometimes when I visited the church, I would just hang back and watch the people come and go as they picked up food items. I always found the behavior of the white people quite curious. Their body language showed so much shame. One would almost think they were stealing the food.
I noted also that these white folks really didn’t have a voice or anyone in power to stand up for them—that they too were victims exploited politically by those in power. Many times the man of the family would not even go inside to get the food; rather, he would sit outside in the truck and send in his wife.
I wish that I had done more for this group of people. I’ve gone from almost hating them (when I was young and angry and they were bigoted and violent) to genuinely loving them as brothers and sisters. I think about how many poor whites respond to me so positively when I speak today. Often I can see a spark in their eyes. I’m truly sorry that I’ve neglected the needs of these neighbors of mine and have not responded often enough to the spark.