Originally created 01/17/04

Historian says biblical religion among Southern blacks, whites produced civil rights victory



Though modern historians often filter out religious influences, there's no question that Christian faith played a formative role in three remarkably swift and nonviolent events: the overthrow of European communism, and the downfall of South African apartheid and of America's racial segregation.

The American social revolution is treated in these two excellent new books that enhance the annual remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

-"To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, 1955-1968" arperSanFrancisco) by Stewart Burns, a historian at California's College of the Redwoods and an editor of the official King Papers.

-"A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow" (University of North Carolina) by University of Arkansas historian David L. Chappell.

Burns plants King's remarkable career squarely in the context of the black Protestant churches that provided the essential networking for widespread nonviolent protests. He also underscores the spiritual resources that helped King personally to proceed with relative serenity despite virulent opposition and death threats.

"Mountaintop," however, follows in the wake of works on the King era by Pulitzer Prize-winners David Garrow ("Bearing the Cross") and Taylor Branch ("Parting the Waters," "Pillar of Fire"). Branch is particularly perceptive on King's black church context.

"Stone" is considerably more innovative, showing 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, while 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 Southern evangelical 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.

Southern white clergy, by and large, weren't bold advocates of integration, but to Chappell the notable thing was that they provided virtually no aid and comfort for traditional white privilege, either.

Few clergy claimed any biblical support for the Jim Crow system. (The Old Testament often advocated forms of religious segregation, but Southern blacks and whites shared the same faith.)

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 on to his platform in 1957 (though in the North, in New York City).

Also in the 1950s, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (a Southeastern denomination that later merged with other Presbyterians) and the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed school desegregation and urged racial harmony.

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.