Tuesday, April 17, 2012

David L. Chappell Responds to Ross Douthat on Religion and the Civil Rights Movement

On April 8 the New York Times published Ross Douthat's op-ed "Divided by God." In part Douthat argued that "religious common ground has all but disappeared" in modern America. (In response, Mark Silk penned a step-by-step rebuttal here.) Toward the end of Douthat's op-ed he discussed the common theological ground that blacks and whites once shared, which he thinks helped end desegregation. In an aside Douthat mentions the work of David L. Chappell, Rothbaum Professor of Modern American History at the University of Oklahoma.

In this guest post Chappell responds to Douthat's reading of Chappell's A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (UNC Press, 2003). Along with that award-winning book, Chappell has written a number of articles and essays (some with the Journal of the Historical Society and Historically Speaking) on religion in modern America, the civil rights movement, politics, and race. He is also the author of Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). His next book, Waking from the Dream: The Battle over Martin Luther King’s Legacy (Random House), will be out in 2013.

Setting the Record Straight
David L. Chappell

I am grateful that Ross Douthat mentioned my book, A Stone of Hope, favorably. ("Divided by God," April 8.) With the best of intentions, however, Mr. Douthat got my story wrong. According to him, I claim that civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s used "moral and theological arguments to effectively shame many [white] southerners into accepting desegregation." That is a familiar version of the story, but the record does not support it.

Civil rights leaders did not shame white southerners but rather undermined their social foundations. The white South's churches could not defend segregation with a straight face, and that hurt the segregationist cause. There is a big difference, however, between being unable to muster a unifying and inspiring defense of an institution and being "shamed" into dismantling it. From beginning to end, I argued in my book, the civil rights movement used political coercion: with boycotts and mass demonstrations, the movement forced white southerners to give up their special privileges against their will.

The civil rights' leaders religious fervor inspired their own black, southern, Christian ranks to rise up out of their despair, fear, and in many cases resignation. But that is as far as the persuasive power of the leaders’ words carried. Rank and filers in the movement earned the respect, and often the awed admiration, of northern black and white liberals, because they were willing to risk their lives, to do jail time, and to endure the clubs, dogs, and fire hoses.

The organized force of black southerners' collective economic power produced the movement's first great victories. Further sustained demonstrations induced the federal government to apply the full force needed to end Jim Crow. The government realized that the only way to restore order and a good investment climate in the South was to enforce the Constitution, nearly a hundred years after it was amended to include black southerners. Thus religion played a key role, but political force carried the day. (So I wrote in my book, at any rate, and I felt I had to correct the record.)

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