R&L: You have led an incredibly productive and active life, from the early civil rights movement to now working to strengthen the black family. What motivates you?
Perkins: I don’t like to see human potential wasted, and that’s what happens when people are left behind, either because the system excludes them or because they have failed to adopt solid values. I spent 22 years, from 1962 to 1980, in rural Mississippi, and prior to that I lived in California. But I had little basic moral training. I grew up with my grandmother, but her sons were bootleggers and gamblers. I would like to give people something I did not have.
R&L: What do you think it was in your own life that instilled values in you?
Perkins: I believe it was my first job, hauling hay at the age of eleven. I realized the gain that can come from hard work and from owning a business. I was inspired early to believe in economic development. I have applied those same values my whole life.
R&L: How do you help promote values?
Perkins: In every project we have, our interest is in getting to core issues, including the importance of work, responsibility, and rest. Our work is what brings us our joy when we have an expectation of celebration. Further, I believe in a strong connection between work and property. Individuals should own the means of production if they are to have a chance at long-term prosperity.
Some people have been led to believe that the means of production should be owned by the state, but that did not work in Russia, Eastern Europe, or China. The political apparatus in any society does not produce. It can only set up the rules of the game. Ultimately, resources have to be in the hands of the people, whether through private ownership or a lease agreement.
R&L: As an ordained minister, how do you see the role of the church in urban life?
Perkins: The church’s role ought to be to nurture the spirit and the values of family and ethics, of work and responsibility. That should be the first message we proclaim. The pastoral role is to encourage people because they are members of the congregation, of the parish, to nurture them in those values. In the inner city today, that is not happening. At times, the church itself must become a model and might even have to start an enterprise.
R&L: How is what you are describing different from the situation we see today?
Perkins: Contrast these methods with governmental welfare programs. The government takes the responsibility away from the person and the family. It makes people dependent on political forces and bureaucracies. All these programs take us away from depending on ourselves, upon our kin, and upon our family. Instead it makes us dependent on a system. That system can’t produce economic development. Only entrepreneurs can create economic development. In terms of charity, ideally, we should have to call on our families first in time of need. That creates a bond between family members and between generations. Government programs weaken those bonds.
R&L: Do you think government adds unnecessary burdens to business?
Perkins: Absolutely. These days, it seems everyone has something bad to say about business. But it provides us with all our goods and services, and also all our jobs and job opportunities. What’s wrong with that? That should be encouraged, not discouraged through regulation. That’s why I believe in free enterprise. At the same time, there is room for government regulation to prevent monopolies from becoming a threat to liberty and economic growth.
R&L: The Koreans and other Asians are very successful in the inner city. Why do these groups make it, and why does it create such a sense of resentment?
Perkins: First, they have a strong will to succeed, which is what others lack. Second, they come with families with strong values that put long-term goals ahead of short-term selfishness. Third, they are willing to serve the consumer by providing goods and services–they don’t think it is somehow beneath them to do that.
They also have the advantage of not being on welfare. Welfare programs discourage work. No person or family on welfare is going to start a business. It saps creativity and initiative. Too often, welfare recipients depend on the government check instead of on each other. It leads husbands to devalue their wives and the children. The welfare system has broken up the family by insisting on a need for dependent children.
R&L: People say that blacks cannot be responsible for themselves, given their history in dealing with racial injustice. Do you agree?
Perkins: That’s where the forgiving grace of God comes in. A person must learn to forgive others, the way a husband and a wife, or two brothers can forgive each other and make up. Hatred is a noose that first holds us back, and then eventually kills us.
R&L: Tell me about your own religious faith.
Perkins: I learned much from my Catholic brother and friend, Father A. J. McNight, but I am an ordained Baptist minister. My entire public ministry has been ecumenical. I believe in the truths of the faith, the forgiveness of sin, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation. The church has always been my home, in spite of my ecumenical appeal.
Religious faith must be an essential part of the development of the black community right now. It is absolutely essential. At my Foundation, we try to foster this through our publication Urban Family. The church must be a voluntary community that reinforces moral values. Storefront churches used to play the role that the current welfare state has taken over–caring for single mothers, becoming the family that those children did not have. The community of the church came about spontaneously, not by government design. It was the product of a people with faith in God and rightly ordered lives. That is what we need to recapture.
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