Religion led to civil rights victory
Historian: Religion led to civil rights victory
Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press
January 17, 2004
modern historians often filter out religious influences, there's no question
that Christian faith played a formative role in the downfall of America's racial
The American social revolution is treated in an excellent
new book that enhances the annual remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on
A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
(University of North Carolina) is written by University of Arkansas historian
David L. Chappell. He shows that Bible-based Southern Protestantism among whites
as well as blacks produced the huge social change.
The black aspect has
been well-told before; the white side is a revelation -- and a surprise, coming
from a self-described atheistic observer.
White Protestant liberals gave
King strategic support but often thought education would bring social progress,
Chappell recounts. King's movement, steeped in classical biblical themes, was
more realistic about human sin. Chappell also thinks the black churchgoers had
far more power than liberal reformers due to their culture of revivalism and
biblically inspired prophetic edge.
The white Southerners' story was far
less heroic but, by Chappell's account, equally essential.
supremacists in the South failed to get their churches to give their cause
active support. That was their Achilles' heel," he writes.
activists, defenders of white supremacy and segregation were denied moral and
cultural legitimacy by their churches. In the most devoutly Protestant and
devoutly biblical sector of the country (then and now), this proved
Few clergy claimed any biblical support for the Jim Crow system.
And white evangelicals were less interested in preserving the old system than in
spreading their gospel at home and overseas -- a cause that was threatened by
Southern racial folkways.
The Rev. Billy Graham, the white Southern
churches' most popular figure in the 1950s (and in 2004), never joined civil
rights marches. But Chappell finds it highly significant that he integrated
seating in his Southern revival meetings the year before the Supreme Court's
1954 school desegregation ruling and welcomed King onto his platform in 1957
(though in the North, in New York City).
Also in the 1950s, school
desegregation and racial harmony got endorsements from Southern Presbyterians
and the Southern Baptist Convention.
When the revolution began, Chappell
writes, the white segregationists had political power, education and wealth.
But, like the white liberals who sympathized with the black plight, he says,
they lacked a strong basis for courage, discipline, and the means "to inspire
solidarity and self-sacrificial devotion to their cause."
Christian minority had those resources in abundance, and this assured their
Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida