Commentary Magazine


The Church of Civil Rights

Nearly a half-century has passed since the heyday of the early civil-rights movement, and race relations in America have grown far too complex to be reckoned by its simple compass. But the campaign to undo the system of segregation in the South seems to have lost none of its moral appeal. If my own experience as a teacher is any guide, a sizable percentage of applicants for graduate study in U.S. history are still likely to cite the civil-rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's as one of their chief inspirations. A surprising number of them set out with hopes of making the movement itself an object of their research.

One wonders what fresh discoveries these earnest young scholars expect to happen upon in such a well-sifted field. But that is beside the point. Clearly, a different kind of motivation is at work here, deeper than mere intellectual curiosity, political calculation, or professional ambition. One cannot help being impressed by it, particularly since the prospective students themselves are nearly always white and economically privileged. But neither is their choice free of self-regard. On the contrary: the felt urgency of the subject is an indication that they are, in some sense, hoping to work out their own salvation in the process of studying it. Reared in a world full of imperfect heroes and compromised ideals, in which their own wealth and ease fill them with ambivalence if not guilt, they seem to harbor a powerful need to redeem their lives through association with a cause they regard as incontrovertibly pure, simple, and noble.

By a similar process, for better or worse, the civil-rights movement has become a moral icon for American society as a whole, as well as for much of the rest of the world. For better, because it was indeed an admirable movement, in both its means and its ends, and one that clearly had the effect of improving the American nation and recalling it to its own professed ideals. For worse, because to the extent that the movement's example has come to be used mindlessly and mechanically, as a template for all social and political struggles, its exaltation has also tended to elevate social movements over institutional politics, demonstrations over deliberations, righteous theatrics over reasoned compromise.

This is not the fault of the movement itself. Nor is it the only factor contributing to the widespread tendency to reduce the multifarious patterns of history to variations upon a few easily grasped archetypes. Nevertheless, that habit is as wrongheaded as it is tempting. Not every tyrant is a Hitler, not every intervention a Vietnam, not every massacre a Holocaust—and not every aspiring social cause is analogous to the civil-rights movement or deserves to be placed on a continuum with it.

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How, then, to find our way back to a truer and more precise understanding of the movement and its place in American history? One of the many virtues of David L. Chappell's new book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion, Liberalism, and the Death of Jim Crow,1 is its insistence that we look carefully at the particulars of this great undertaking and the specific reasons it succeeded. A briskly written volume by a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, feisty in tone but impressive in its scholarly documentation, A Stone of Hope stands back from the welter of comment accumulated over the past 50 years and asks some refreshingly direct and simple questions. How and why did this great cultural change happen? Why did the dominant liberalism of the Democratic party contribute so little, and so late, to the effort? Where did black Southerners find the inspiration to rebel against a massively entrenched social system? And why did their white Southern opponents turn out to be so surprisingly weak?

The short answer to each of these four questions can be put in a single word: religion. More specifically, Chappell argues that one cannot apprehend the movement's success without taking into account the pervasive cultural setting of Southern Protestantism within which it unfolded. He is not merely claiming religion as “a neglected factor.” Instead, he is claiming it as the absolutely crucial conditioning factor, without which nothing could have occurred as it did.

In this view, the civil-rights movement was not a fundamentally political mobilization, with lots of soulful gospel songs and other colorful trappings of African-American religious culture added in on the side—a position that Chappell dismisses for the subtle condescension that it is. Instead, it was primarily a high-octane religious revival, full of prophetic utterances and messianic expectations, which had the effect, almost as a byproduct, of leading to profound political and social change.

In making this argument, Chappell gives the back of his hand to white liberal commentators like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Gunnar Myrdal, who at the time envisioned the cause of racial justice as but one element in the great unfolding of a progressive agenda. Their untroubled confidence in the inevitable triumph of their own ideas, Chappell believes, ironically made them complacent and unwilling to act decisively. Even when they tempered their rational optimism with the gloomier outlook of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, as Schlesinger did repeatedly, they never really took on board the full weight of Niebuhr's pessimistic view of human nature. Whatever the setbacks of the moment, liberals knew themselves to be anointed by history as the party of the future, and so deemed the cause of black civil rights in the South to be insufficiently pressing to jeopardize the liberals' electoral chances. As Chappell puts it acidly, “opportunism on this issue dictated the same [empty] gestures as idealism.”

By contrast, black Southern preachers and their followers approached life with a different anthropology, and a different view of progress. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fundamentalist Baptist background may have been at odds with his seminary education in the liberal North, but the two meshed well in his view of human nature and the prophetic calling of the Christian leader. The doctrine of original sin, the tendency of all human endeavors to slide into corruption, the incapacity of human institutions to reform themselves without divine favor, the need for the man of God to stand outside the comfort of the status quo and speak with the boldness of Jeremiah calling the people to repentance, and the need for the faithful to experience suffering and submission to God's will as the price of their redemption: these were things that King, and his followers, all instinctively grasped.

The biblical view of man and God and sin and suffering and humility and redemption was, for those black Southerners, their chief sustenance, their spiritual meat and drink, their everyday solace and their hope for the end-times. Without the primal, driving force of their deep religious convictions, Chappell contends, the civil-rights movement would never have begun to move.

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This part of Chappell's argument, though convincing, is not entirely original. Most standard accounts of the movement do give a good deal of space to its religious elements, even if they often tend (not entirely without reason) to emphasize the black church as a political and social institution rather than as a religious one. In recent years, moreover, students of the struggle have increased the attention paid to religion, as in works like Charles Marsh's God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1999) and Stewart Burns's To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America (2004). Even Chappell's portrayal of King's philosophy of “hope without optimism” has been presented before, notably in an extraordinarily insightful chapter of Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven (1991), upon which this book draws.

If Chappell is far from unique in emphasizing the depth and specific character of the movement's religious commitments, he may also be too sweeping in his condemnation of cold-war liberalism and too hard on the particular liberals he has chosen to pin to the wall. He himself has a certain prophetic impatience with the inevitable messiness and compromise of electoral politics, an impatience that is one of those ambivalent legacies of the movement itself. (Max Weber's great and gloomy lecture on “Politics as Vocation” was written with just such impatience in mind.) Similarly, he gives too little weight to the long-term legal strategy by which the NAACP sought to break the hold of segregation through a carefully calibrated succession of court cases, thereby establishing an essential (though morally far less impressive) complement to the movement's more expansive and faith-suffused impulses.

Nor does Chappell adequately stress the fact that many key players in the intellectual leadership of the movement, including Bayard Rustin and Robert Moses, espoused views that did not line up with the evangelical Protestantism of King. (It is a bit of stretch, for example, to argue that Moses's commitment to the philosophy of Albert Camus was somehow the same as a religious commitment to biblical Christianity.) This book, in short, is not without flaws, and in a number of respects may well turn out to be a corrective in need of correction.

But what makes A Stone of Hope a truly exciting and important intellectual breakthrough is not its claims about the religiosity of the movement itself. Rather, it is Chappell's careful and imaginative approach to white Southern religious convictions and the white Christian response to the movement. This has been a long time in coming. “The standard image of the white South in the civil-rights struggle,” Chappell rightly observes, “is a mob.” In that respect, this book, although it can hardly be considered overly sympathetic to the white South, is a real advance.

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It is frequently assumed, for example, that in this great cultural conflict, each side devised its own self-contained and self-confirming version of the Christian faith. King himself, in a famous line that Chappell strangely misrenders here, spoke of eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning being “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” But this turns out to be far less true of the white South in the civil-rights era than King's words would suggest. As Chappell points out, even though most white Southern Protestant churches were still aligned with the same sectionalist denominations that had been created a century earlier by the Civil War, they were by and large unsupportive of the segregationist cause.

In some cases, this unsupportiveness took the form of outright and unambiguous opposition. Thus, the denominational assemblies of the Southern Baptists and Southern Presbyterians went on the record with resolutions strongly favoring desegregation. The evangelist Rev. Billy Graham was admirably consistent in his opposition to racial segregation from the very beginning of his career, both in his public utterances and in his private and personal behavior.

Elsewhere, to be sure, the picture was different. Far from repudiating segregation, white churches characteristically adopted an attitude of quiet, passive, evasive neutrality. This naturally frustrated King, though it also fed his hopeful conviction that the majority of white Southerners could eventually be won over to his position.

In any event, as Chappell perceptively notes, the muted response of white Southern clergy also frustrated the segregationists, leaving them disabled in crucial ways. White Southern faith may not have been strong enough to overcome ingrained racial and social barriers—it was too tied to the status quo for that—but it was at least strong enough to withhold from those barriers the full mantle of legitimacy. This in turn made it necessary for segregationist politicians to fight for their cause on strictly sociological and constitutional grounds—or with undiluted demagoguery.

And that made all the difference. From the beginning, the specific dynamics of the civil-rights movement were traceable to the fact that both sides agreed on something—and that something was the truth and legitimizing force of Christianity. Though mightier than the civil-rights movement in many superficial respects, the movement's white Southern opponents were disarmed by their inability to count on the moral support of the South's most characteristic institution or to draw on the same sources of strength that animated their foes.

In Chappell's telling, the presence of this shared cultural premise was just as fundamental as anything the two sides disagreed about. It permeated the field of forces, as essential a feature of the battle as the air the antagonists breathed. And it determined the outcome: for in this struggle, as Chappell writes, the winners were those who “got strength from old-time religion,” and who “used religion to inspire solidarity and self-sacrificial devotion to their cause.”

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If Chappell's reading of the movement is right, it ought to affect the way we assess its significance in American and world history.

For one thing, Chappell's reading should help explain to Americans why Tiananmen Square was not Selma, and why the tactics of King and Gandhi do not work against a Saddam Hussein or the Iranian mullahs. Such tactics seek to prick consciences that are shaped like one's own; but they fall pitiably short when the “other” inhabits a genuinely different moral universe. For all its shortcomings, the United States has always had such a shared moral framework, grounded not merely in abstract ideas of human rights and individual liberty but also in a longer and deeper heritage of biblical narratives, tropes, parables, and moral wisdom. This is one reason why our own struggles and triumphs are so difficult to replicate in the rest of the world.

In addition, A Stone of Hope reminds us that movements for change in American history are likely to succeed and endure only to the degree that they respect the country's religious heritage or are broadly congruent with it. Here one might cite not only the civil-rights movement but also the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and even the American Revolution itself. On all of these hard-fought issues one can find both religious and secular rationales being advanced, but the two sets of justifications are also mutually supportive and even intermingle to an extent unthinkable in other cultures.

That congruency is a key element in the genius of American politics, as of American religion. It is why Martin Luther King's finest rhetoric could with equal plausibility invoke not only the prophetic Scriptures but also the Declaration and the Constitution and the founders, and why the historian Stewart Burns is not being fanciful in interpreting King's life's work as a “sacred mission” to “save America.” We enshrine the separation of church and state, but at the same time we practice the mingling of religion and public life. It is not always logical, but it frequently makes good sense.

Of course, in each of these cases (and especially slavery and suffrage), there were also religiously grounded arguments against change. Sometimes, moreover, religious and secular arguments for reform may be united in their mistakenness: consider Prohibition. Nothing in life is foolproof. But there are almost no examples in the American past of successful and widely accepted reforms that have not paid their respect to Americans' religious and secular sensibilities alike. They are required to pass muster with, so to speak, a bicameral body politic.

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This fact also has profound implications for the larger meanings we have allowed ourselves to derive from the civil-rights movement. In the first place, one must view with the profoundest regret the transformation of the movement by the late 1960's from an instrument of national integration and reconciliation into an instrument of what Lasch rightly called “the politics of resentment and reparations.” That transformation corresponded exactly with the loss of the movement's religious core and its turn toward a rather different combination of impulses: strident social militancy on the one hand, court-imposed legalism on the other.

This purely coercive combination is still with us today, with the consequence that as the material conditions of American blacks have steadily improved, race relations remain mired in mutual suspicion—a state that has reached a kind of culmination in the astoundingly pointless and divisive debate over reparations for slavery. Whatever the outcome of that debate, it will never further the cause of reconciliation.

If, in the area of race relations, it makes no sense to abstract the movement from its relationship to its larger religious context, the same goes for its use as an analogy in other contexts. Two of the most contentious issues of recent years have been abortion and gay marriage. In both cases, not only have policy changes been imposed by courts rather than through representative institutions, but those involved have sought to challenge and override the very core of the country's prevailing religious convictions.

This tactic has been enormously costly. Even today, three decades after Roe v. Wade, the cause of unrestricted abortion rights stands largely on the acts of unelected judges and on the morally unimpressive principle of stare decisis. It has few if any full-throated defenders among the religiously devout—and many fervent opponents, who look increasingly to the 19th-century abolitionists and the 20th-century civil-rights movement for inspiration. One can safely predict that the issue will continue to be a source of social division in the years to come.

Proponents of gay marriage, for their part, also invoke the civil-rights movement as precedent, comparing proscriptions against same-sex unions to anti-miscegenation laws and other forms of discrimination. But there is a reason why no subgroup registers more negatively on this issue in opinion surveys than blacks. It is not just that they know when their movement is being hijacked. It is that the religious sensibility that animated the civil-rights movement, and that is still very much alive in the American black community today, is bound up in a biblical world view that would no more countenance the radical redefinition of marriage than it would the reimposition of slavery. When King and his followers joyfully invoked the word “freedom,” they did not mean the unlimited expressive liberty of autonomous individuals. Their conception of freedom was inseparable not only from their rootedness in their own particular place and time but in obedience to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

None of this is meant to imply that the religious are always right, or should have supervisory power over all social change, any more than should the federal and state judiciaries. It is merely to recognize the longstanding and indispensable place of religion in the American experiment, and the high price to be paid when it is sundered from the cause of social change. Fortunately, as David Chappell's book shows, we do not have to choose whether to call the story of the civil-rights movement a Christian story, a Southern story, or an American story, for it is all three. This is a fact for which all Americans, not only Christians or Southerners—or secularists—can be grateful, and an example to ponder with care.

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Footnotes

1 University of North Carolina Press, 330 pp., $34.95.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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