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Religion led to civil rights victory

Historian: Religion led to civil rights victory

By Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press

January 17, 2004

Though 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 segregation.

The American social revolution is treated in an excellent new book that enhances the annual remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.

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.

"White supremacists in the South failed to get their churches to give their cause active support. That was their Achilles' heel," he writes.

Unlike black 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 fatal.

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."

The black Christian minority had those resources in abundance, and this assured their triumph.

Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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