JACKSON, MS (June 26, 2015) — Civil rights activist John Perkins and his grandson “Big John” Perkins, who is planting Common Ground Covenant Church, said Wednesday that they were encouraged by the giant upsurge in calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings in the region, yet they expressed concerns about the protests as well.
Luke Swanson, who pastors a multiethnic church in Minneapolis that was the site of racially motivated violence, echoed their concerns.
Since the slaying of nine people in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte, South Carolina, renewed calls for the Confederate flag to be removed outside government buildings have grown louder. In Mississippi the symbol of the Confederacy remains part of the state flag.
“It represents not only hate but also the history of our struggle,” said “Big John” Perkins.
He likens the call to a challenge by President Ronald Reagan to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. On June 12, 1987, Reagan gave a speech at the Berlin Wall and challenged Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”
The church has the responsibility to lead in response to God’s call but even more so because of its complicity in injustice, “Big John” Perkins said. “The church held up slavery and it held up segregation.”
He said he was concerned, however, about the motivation behind the movement to force removal of the flag from government property. “They want to make it a civil rights issue, but it is something different. It’s a moral issue.”
He also expressed concern that people will think that getting the flag taken down also will indicate that racism has been defeated or that more work isn’t needed.
“We need to talk about sweeping change,” the elder Perkins said. “We need to go beyond the flag. We need to pursue economic and social justice.”
“I still feel there is a generation of people who are willing to keep going and pushing for change,” the elder Perkins said, “but it’s about more than sitting in the pews together.
“We need to find a creative way to revisit what it means to say, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”
Like his grandson, the elder Perkins believes conversation must change. “People
like (Lyle Roof) and those that killed other civil rights leaders did so thinking they were doing others a favor,” he said. “We have created such a racially charged nation.”
He added, “The church is not really speaking up or out about what ought to be done as God’s people. We need to have a language of love and affirmation. So that people are not filled with this misguided hate. We have to pray for our nation.”
Luke Swanson, pastor of Community Covenant Church which was set on fire in a racially motivated attack in 2013, said his church grieved over the victims of the Charlotte murders. “It was important to speak the name out loud of each person,” he said. “Although our church was empty and no one was killed, we know what it is to have our church attacked,” Swanson said.
Community Covenant is located in an underserved area where educational and job opportunities are lacking, and Swanson echoed Perkins’s concerns that people will assume that the protests are adequately addressing pervasive racism.
He noted, for example, that the Minneapolis City Council is considering changing the name of Lake Calhoun because it was named for a pre-Civil War politician who was an ardent racist. But more than symbolic actions are needed.
Swanson added, “I’m concerned that people will hear the families of the victims offer forgiveness and think that everything is OK. It’s not.”
“In our church, people feel it every day,” he said. “They know the disparity in education and jobs and opportunity. We have to work toward fixing those, and that will mean a lot of hard work.”