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

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

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

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


The civil rights movement was arguably the most successful social movement in American history. In a provocative new assessment of its success, David Chappell argues that the story of civil rights is not a story of the ultimate triumph of liberal ideas after decades of gradual progress. Rather, it is a story of the power of religious tradition.

Chappell reconsiders the intellectual roots of civil rights reform, showing how northern liberals' faith in the power of human reason to overcome prejudice was at odds with the movement's goal of immediate change. Even when liberals sincerely wanted change, they recognized that they could not necessarily inspire others to unite and fight for it. But the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament--sometimes translated into secular language--drove African American activists to unprecedented solidarity and self-sacrifice. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, James Lawson, Modjeska Simkins, and other black leaders believed, as the Hebrew prophets believed, that they had to stand apart from society and instigate dramatic changes to force an unwilling world to abandon its sinful ways. Their impassioned campaign to stamp out "the sin of segregation" brought the vitality of a religious revival to their cause. Meanwhile, segregationists found little support within their white southern religious denominations. Although segregationists outvoted and outgunned black integrationists, the segregationists lost, Chappell concludes, largely because they did not have a religious commitment to their cause.


In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said that he was going back to the South with faith that his people could hew “a stone of hope” from “a mountain of despair.” That image captures the philosophy of the civil rights movement. the faith that drove black southern protesters to their extraordinary victories in the mid-1960s, this book argues, grew out of a realistic understanding of the typically dim prospects for social justice in this world. Despair was the mountain. Hope was by comparison small, hard to come by. “Freedom isn’t free,” one of the movement’s songs observed: “You gotta pay a price, you gotta sacrifice, for your liberty.” in another one of his 1963 speeches King said that the jailed black children of Birmingham were “carving a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair.”

King’s public career had begun in 1955, in a period defined by Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin; by the homogeneity of Levittown and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; by a popular president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who opposed federal action to promote equality; and by equally popular racial demagogues in the southern states. the Democratic Party, in its 1948 platform, and the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, appeared to repudiate their long-standing support of white supremacy. But neither could do much to change the discriminatory laws and customs in the South. the Democrats retreated from their bold statement, and the Court seemed to consign victims of discrimination to an endless, costly series of individual lawsuits. Many black southerners—including King, for a time—concluded that the rosy promises of change were as false as innumerable promises in the past. Hopes of racial justice seemed as distant as ever.

Yet over the twelve-odd years of King’s career, a mass movement rose up in the South and brought city governments, bus companies, and chambers of commerce to their knees. the movement created disorder so severe . . .

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