- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

Nothing reflects the present so well as its version of the past. So we all should have foreseen that Moral Values, whatever that amorphous phrase means, would soon loom large in today’s politics. We should have caught on as soon as David Chappell’s groundbreaking history of the American civil rights movement appeared. Because his book emphasizes the religious ideas that propelled it. Its title: “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.”

A University of Arkansas historian, David Chappell reversed the usual approach to the civil rights movement. Instead of dismissing its religious rhetoric as only that, and concentrating on its politics, he actually listened to what Martin Luther King Jr. — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — was saying. As Yogi Berra might say, you can hear a lot by just listening.

This has, or should, change the way we think of those days and renew interest in how moral, even theological, values — once mobilized — can completely transform a society.

Our familiarity with all the civil rights movement accomplished may have bred contempt. A younger generation may not even be able to recall the whole, pervasive structure of Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow attitudes and daily, demeaning Jim Crow insults that were swept away in a few short years … which was no mean feat. It was a social, political and cultural revolution. The success of that revolution has to be one of the most dramatic yet peaceful achievements in history.

How did it happen? Why did the whole American caste system crumble in a single decade? What forces ended the old order? Ideas. Moral conviction. Faith, hope and charity. I can already see the cynics sneering at so spiritual an explanation. But David Chappell makes a convincing case for it.

Here is what one reviewer, Jonathan Rieder in the New York Times Book Review, had to say about Mr. Chappell’s book:

“Simply put, many people think about the Southern black struggle in the way the movement often saw itself, as David against Goliath. … Chappell, who teaches history at the University of Arkansas, argues provocatively that we have got this history plain wrong. Southern segregationists were more vulnerable, liberal allies were more feckless and insurgent blacks were stronger than we typically perceive them. Flamboyant acts of racial animosity often obscured the more complex dynamics beneath the surface. Similarly, the organized unanimity displayed by Southern politicians was only a ‘veneer of defiance and solidarity.’

“Chappell’s eye-opening conclusion is that ‘the segregationists’ foundations in Southern white culture were mushy. The segregationists had popular opinion behind them, but not popular conviction,’ for a variety of reasons. Most important, as Chappell shows in riveting detail, they could not lean on religion as did their black neighbors.”

In short, the segs were morally disarmed. How could it be otherwise? How could they appeal to the God of Exodus to keep others bound by chains of law and custom? Those chains would in the end prove as wispy as spider’s webs once moral force was applied. And the walls came tumbling down.

Martin Luther King Jr. realized early on that he had an ally in the heart of his enemy, and he never ceased appealing to it. After all, this was the Bible Belt, and our morality was his; all he had to do was awaken it. Instead of letting society shape his theology, his theology would reshape society.

Or as Dr. King put it in the midst of the bus boycott that started it all, “We have the strange feeling down in Montgomery that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship.”

It’s a lesson that applies to more than the history of civil rights: Never underestimate the power of moral values.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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