How civil rights were won

Posted: May 17, 2004 12:00 AM

   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."

    Not very warm and fuzzy. The prophetic vision meant that there was no sense waiting for gradual progress. It meant that mere rational discussion of civil rights wasn't enough. Liberals blanched at the conflict that direct action might bring. Too bad. Civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin scoffed at liberals "begging for retreat, lest 'things get out of hand and lead to violence.'" Activist James Lawson called the sit-in movement "a judgment upon middle-class, conventional, halfway efforts to deal with radical social evil."

    The prophetic tradition understood radical evil and offered the spiritual armor to battle it.

    Black activists were willing to bleed even though it was unfair that they had to -- because, as King put it, "unearned suffering is redemptive." Nothing liberalism offered from its quiver of good intentions could match the power of that Christian belief. Fire hoses and bombings? Bring them on. As Lawson said, nonviolence "matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil."

    In celebrating the civil-rights movement, liberals are praising people they would ordinarily consider dangerously simplistic fanatics. Birmingham activist Fred Shuttlesworth said in 1958: "This is a religious crusade, a fight between light and darkness, right and wrong, good and evil, fair play and tyranny. We are assured victory because we are using weapons of spiritual warfare." Even more offensively in contemporary terms, he declared his faith that Americans ultimately "shall be true to our ideals as a Christian nation."

    The anniversary of Brown reminds us of the role played in the desegregation fight by judges wielding social science and law. Don't forget the activists who wielded their faith, and changed America.