In 1947, John M. Perkins’ older brother, Clyde, was killed by a police officer in segregated Mississippi. Like many Black Southerners during that era, Perkins left the danger of his birthplace for California. Years later, he returned to start a Bible literacy institute, a decision that led him to become a civil rights activist and pioneer in the field of community development.
But now some of the same ideas that Perkins conceived to bring economic justice to Black communities are being used by white-led Christian organizations to justify displacement in Black neighborhoods.
When Perkins returned to Mississippi in 1960, the movement for civil rights was spreading across the Deep South, and his evangelizing began to address “the desperate physical needs of many of our people” trapped in sharecropping. This agenda proved profoundly dangerous: in the 1970s, Perkins was nearly killed by police in retaliation for voter rights activism. After this brutal incident, Perkins moved towards Black separatism, doubtful that white society could ever repent. He organized Black cooperatives in Mississippi and looked to nearby communities like Mound Bayou, founded by freed slaves, as examples of Black economic self-determination. He supported national reparations for slavery.
Perkins built a community development vision out of these experiences and his work at his Voice of Calvary ministry in Jackson. In his memoir, he describes how, over time, he became more open to integration as he encountered “whites who believed in justice.” He developed ‘three Rs’ for community transformation: relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. He envisioned middle-income people, grounded in evangelical Christianity, moving into poor neighborhoods to band with their neighbors in a challenge to anti-Black economic oppression and white flight.
Today, this framework remains central to the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), an organization that formed in 1989 out of Perkins’ work and today comprises over 900 member sites across the U.S. No longer at its helm, Perkins still leads early morning bible study at the annual conference with a bombastic preaching style that belies his 89 years.
CCDA leaders still challenge practitioners to spend years living in segregated, disinvested urban neighborhoods, motivated by Christian faith but without evangelizing their neighbors. However, in today’s context of Black displacement from gentrifying cities, this strategy does not necessarily lead to the liberation from white supremacy that Perkins once envisioned. Instead, this practice risks the opposite by repeating old patterns in which low-income Black people have little say over where they live.
A popular CCDA organization in Atlanta that pursues “gentrification with justice” highlights the tensions of this strategy. While a number of CCDA organizations, including Black evangelical ones, actively work to prevent gentrification, Atlanta’s Focused Community Strategies (FCS) intentionally seeks to enact it. In the 1990s, FCS, whose leadership is predominantly white, built houses in a majority-Black Atlanta neighborhood called East Lake, where an experiment in privatizing public housing was underway.
The Atlanta Housing Authority teamed up with a prominent real estate mogul to demolish a public housing complex. FCS populated its houses and the market-rate units of the new “mixed-income” housing complex with “strategic [Christian] neighbors” who were meant to build relationships with their low-income neighbors. The redevelopment displaced 450 low-income families, and only 75 of those returned. With a displacement rate of 83 percent, how could meaningful solidarity across class lines really take place?
Since 2001, FCS has been building and rehabilitating both subsidized and market-rate homes in a neighborhood called South Atlanta. Following the CCDA ethos, they encourage middle-class Christians, now termed “intentional neighbors,” to move in. They also operate a bike shop, coffee shop, and market, while running various programs in the area.
A neighborhood of roughly 500 houses in Atlanta’s southeast corner, South Atlanta was a segregated center of Black middle-class life in the early to mid-20th century. Back then it was called Brownsville. It has much in common with many other disinvested, historically segregated neighborhoods now experiencing reinvestment and displacement pressures.
In today’s context of Black displacement from gentrifying cities, this strategy is not leading to liberation from white supremacy.
According to the real estate website Zillow, housing values for a 3-bedroom home in 30315––a zip code that covers an area primarily made up of South Atlanta and adjacent Lakewood Heights––increased from $43,500 in July 2015 to $103,000 in July 2018. From July 2017 to July 2018, 3-bedroom house values increased by 46.9 percent, compared to a 29.6 percent increase in Atlanta overall. More generally, southside Atlanta neighborhoods have experienced rapid gentrification since 2000. South Atlanta is vulnerable to further gentrification in part because of its proximity to the Atlanta BeltLine, an urban greening project that threatens housing affordability across the city.
FCS argues that these gentrification patterns in South Atlanta can benefit its low-income residents, which is the foundational idea behind founder Bob Lupton’s gentrification with justice framework. In his 2007 book, “Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor,” Lupton writes, “The city needs land-owning residents who are also faith-motivated, who yield to the tenets of their faith in the inevitable tension between values of neighbor over values of property.” At the same time, Lupton argues that displacement is not all bad:
“Bringing responsible property management back into a neglected community does spell disruption for those who have chosen or been forced by necessity [CB2] to endure slumlord economics. But what may be disruptive for the moment can become a blessing for those who yearn for a better way of life if—and this is a big if—the poor are included in the reclamation process by the returning gentry.”
Yet underneath his apparent concern for the poor is a strong disdain, evident in other statements he’s made. It is on full display, for example, in a 2005 blog post where Lupton railed against the president of the East Lake Meadows tenant association, calling her a “welfare queen” whose “powerful rule” was over.
While Lupton is no longer at the helm of FCS, gentrification with justice remains central to the organizational vision. In addition to building and rehabilitating homes accessible to low-income households, programs like FCS’s Pride for Parents exemplify what Lupton means by inclusion of people facing displacement pressures. In this program, South Atlanta residents purchase donated Christmas toys from FCS at below-retail prices instead of receiving them for free, “to affirm the dignity of the families we work with” and avoid the “humiliation” of charity.
While numerous Black South Atlanta residents with whom I spoke cautiously welcomed FCS, others felt disempowered by the organization’s approach. For example, a Black woman with school-age children expressed disappointment with Pride for Parents. Through comparison shopping at other affordable stores, she had concluded that FCS’s prices were high, and rejected the idea that she would feel a sense of dignity paying for free goods.
She suggested that poverty, not dignity, is the problem, noting, "I'm already awesome, I'm already great. I'm just stuck in this. There's a lot of us stuck." Yet she hesitated to express that she found the program condescending. “Already, especially Black women, [we are] already pigeonholed as being so angry,” she explained.
Conversations with intentional neighbors and FCS staff in which they expressed hope for more white and well-off South Atlanta residents suggest further tensions with Perkins’ ideal of liberated Black communities. While many intentional neighbors expressed deep care and friendship with their neighbors, some also displayed troubling views about diversity in South Atlanta.
One intentional neighbor said, “I think we want to continue to grow in diversity. There are more white people living there now than there were, but it's still a minority.” Here, the neighbor defines diversity as more white people moving into a predominantly Black neighborhood—or, perhaps, more Black people leaving.
In an interview, FCS President Jim Wehner described a strategy to ‘flip’ South Atlanta:
“We haven’t flipped the neighborhood completely... it was almost 85 percent rental when we first started. We want to flip that so it’s about 75 percent homeownership. So 75 percent homeownership, 25 percent, so there is still a place for rental in the neighborhood. But then of that 75 percent homeownership, we want a third of it to be low income families.”
In this calculation, half of South Atlanta residents would be market-rate homeowners. These homeowners would need increasingly higher wealth and incomes to match the growing cost of market-rate homes; the 25 percent of renters in Wehner’s figure would also see their rents rise. The two census tracts that cover South Atlanta had poverty rates of 45.3 percent and 62.4 percent in 2012-2016 American Community Survey estimates. FCS’s plan would make South Atlanta unaffordable to many such residents and ensure their displacement, unless their incomes were to precipitously rise.
This strategy to flip South Atlanta stems from the concentration of poverty argument, a flawed concept with academic origins that condemns segregation, but frequently poses the displacement of poor people as a solution instead of providing neighborhoods with adequate resources. At an FCS open house in 2015, Wehner said that a neighborhood in which 75-80 percent of residents are low-income “cannot be healthy.”
Urban sociologists in the 1980s pointed to unprecedented levels of urban segregation, and policymakers responded with federal programs to break up racialized poverty. However, these programs have at best produced lackluster outcomes. Public housing has been demolished across the country to build mixed-income developments, but displaced residents end up in neighborhoods with similar poverty and segregation to the housing projects which they left.
The neighbor defines diversity as more white people moving into a predominantly Black neighborhood—or, perhaps, more Black people leaving.
Other scholars argue that low-income households benefit from wraparound support programs in mixed-income developments, rather than the presence of wealthier neighbors. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the same logic used to segregate Black communities—forced movement by majority-white powers—is still oppressive when used to disperse them.
Gentrification and the dispersal of Black communities simply cannot be the answer to the moral imperatives that John Perkins posed to his followers in the 1960s and 1970s. In Perkins’ heyday, moving into poor neighborhoods of color did not put residents at high risk of displacement. White flight from cities to suburbs was rampant; Perkins’ relocators were bucking that trend. Today, the waves of speculation crashing through Black neighborhoods are the white-dominated, oppressive economic structure, as displacement pressures destabilize communities. The white supremacist economic system is rampant land speculation and dispossession that moves Black poverty around and further out of sight.
With such incongruity between Perkins’ ‘R’ of relocation and gentrifying cities today, it is time for Christian community development to re-examine its 1960s Deep South origin story. The movement can reclaim Perkins’ focus on achieving Black autonomy from white supremacist economic structures, yet rethink strategies to fit the modern context of whitening U.S. cities.
Resourcing low-income Black communities without the assumption that middle-class neighbors must move in next door would be an apt start. Community development organizations more broadly, not just religious ones, could follow this path of thoughtfully centering Black people’s ‘right to stay put’ in cities. To do so would rightfully reclaim the urgency of civil rights for cities today.