A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow

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A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. By David L. Chappell. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 344. Introduction, illustrations, conclusion, appendix, notes, sources, bibliographic essay, acknowledgments, index. $34.95.)

In A Stone of Hope, David L. Chappell argues that religion provided many participants in the civil rights movement with the inspiration and hope necessary to initiate and sustain the struggle despite seemingly overpowering odds. Although southern whites overwhelmingly favored segregation, they divided over how best to preserve it and lacked the overriding commitment to the cause that civil rights activists showed to theirs. Many civil rights participants believed that God was working through the movement, and so, for them, religion legitimized the struggle. However, their white opponents found no religious support for Jim Crow from the leaders of the major white denominations, little from their clergymen, and only a small amount from a divided white laity. While religion had helped legitimize slavery and the Confederate cause among most white southerners during the Civil War, it did not provide a rationale or inspiration for preserving Jim Crow a century later, thereby substantially and even fatally weakening the segregationist cause. Based on extensive archival and manuscript research and oral history, Chappell's engagingly written study offers a provocative interpretation of the movement and its opponents.

In the opening chapter, Chappell argues that northern white liberals, hamstrung by their commitment to education, persuasion, and gradualism, achieved little for African-American rights in the 1930s and 1940s. Mistakenly, such liberals expected that the South's economic and educational modernization would lead white southerners to abandon an irrational, obsolete segregationist tradition. Convinced of the power of reason and suasion, liberals lacked the zeal to inspire and lead an equal rights struggle. The alliance between northern liberals and the civil rights movement was essential to overturn legal discrimination in the South, but the movement derived its inspiration from an irrational faith that liberals lacked.

Religion, Chappell argues, inspired many civil rights participants with the assurance to face violence and economic coercion, certain that God was on their side. The movement constituted a religious revival, the nation's Third Great Awakening, replete with participants' claims of miracles, conversion experiences, and God's presence. Like earlier Great Awakenings, the third changed society. Civil rights strategists and leaders lacked the liberals' faith in persuasion. Articulate civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. …