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Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview

§123 Reverend Duncan Howlett

Reverend Duncan Howlett’s biography appears at the introduction to his March
12, 1961 speech in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the important and perceptive sermon
below, less than two weeks after the murder of his friend and former coworker,
James Reeb, Reverend Howlett links the suasory power of the movement to its
explicit links with the Judeo-Christian religion. More specifically, Howlett fears
for the movement in part because of signs of militancy. And if militancy wins the
upper hand, the persuasive appeal of the movement will immediately die. In this
sense does Howlett limn the contours of why the movement has moved so many.
For one, the movement’s nonviolent ethos has appealed to the best in Americans:
“The civil rights movement does the American people honor it can ill afford to
ignore. The movement treats us as if we were a morally mature people. It appeals
to the best in us.” And second, the appeal of the movement is fundamentally linked
with the Judeo-Christian religion and its command to love our God and love each
other.


The Moral Stature of the Civil Rights Movement
All Souls Church (Unitarian), Washington, D.C.
March 21, 1965

When we are caught up in the swirl of great events, we have from time to time to stop and take stock of ourselves. We need to know where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Such a time for us is now.

More than three years ago, I traced for you the legal development of the civil rights movement culminating in the Supreme Court decision of 1954. The story begins with the Emancipation Proclamation, grows during the Reconstruction period, dies out in the Southern reaction that followed and the Northern neglect that accompanied it, and begins again in 1896 with the famous dissent of John Marshall Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson. “Our Constitution is colorblind,” he declared, “and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan’s dissent has proved to be one of the most historic in the long line of dissenting opinions that distinguishes the Supreme Court of the United States.

This morning I want to trace the activist as contrasted with the legal antecedents of the civil rights movement. Opinions would vary as to when this particular phase of the story ought to begin, but most would probably choose the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott organized by Martin Luther King in 1955. Seeking for the origin of this effort, many would think of Gandhi, for Dr. King was and is an exponent of the Gandhian doctrine of nonviolent resistance. It was with Gandhi too that the idea of the march

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