The Brown v. Board of Education decision, celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, was by no means the end of the civil-rights struggle. In one sense, it was even a false dawn. The legal meliorism that underpinned the decision -- i.e., the idea that things will get steadily better over time, one court ruling at a time -- didn't break segregation in America. That was accomplished by a movement that explicitly rejected the go-slow, work-within-the-system logic of Brown.
We think of the civil-rights movement as a triumph of a forward-looking and optimistic liberalism. But that's only part of the story. In his new book, "A Stone of Hope," historian David L. Chappell demonstrates that the dramatic civil-rights successes of the 1960s were the fruit of a movement devoted not to the soothing liberal faith in human reason, but to a prophetic religious tradition.
Chappell's title is drawn from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, when he expressed his faith that blacks in the South could hew a "stone of hope" from "a mountain of despair." King spoke a language alien to non-lapsarian liberals. The seminal liberal work on race at the time was sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma." It promised, as one historian has put it, "a virtually painless exit from the nation's racist history." As Americans became more enlightened, Myrdal argued, the country's racism would naturally disappear. Despair? Hah. Progress was inevitable.
But the inevitable was slow to arrive -- 10 years after Brown, just more than 1 percent of Southern blacks were in integrated public schools -- and black activists rejected Myrdal's sunny creed. "The black movement's nonviolent soldiers were driven not by modern liberal faith in human reason," writes Chappell, "but by older, seemingly more durable prejudices and superstitions that were rooted in Christian and Jewish myth."
King's hero was the prophet Jeremiah, warning of moral decline and offering, in Chappell's words, "rebellion and renewal motivated by prophetic truth."
King complained that liberalism "vainly seeks to overcome [in]justice through purely moral and rational suasions." That was inadequate to the corruption inherent in human affairs. "Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency," King wrote, "man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice."