Blogs > Cliopatria > On David Chappell's A Stone of Hope

Nov 29, 2008 1:56 pm

On David Chappell's A Stone of Hope

I was cleaning up my office yesterday and came across this piece that I had meant to, but didn't publish several years ago. It was given at a conference of the Southern Intellectual History Circle in 2004, shortly after the publication of David Chappell's A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.

Like David's book, my comments are divided into three parts. They are: 1) compliments, 2) back-handed compliments, and 3) criticism. I'll offer them in that order.

For some reason, when I first read David's A Stone of Hope, I thought back some years ago when I was still in graduate school. I was reading Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform at a time when it was still a fairly new work of history. So, I'm reading along, thinking and learning, and, then suddenly, there it was – a gob-smacking colossal giant of a mistake. This was no minor error. It was a huge thing that leapt out from the page, grabbed me, and screamed:"You know more than Richard Hofstadter does about this!" In that moment, I thought it was an omen of a promising professional future for me. So, Richard Hofstadter and I made a pact with each other that evening. I would not hold him up to public shame and humiliation if he would be my guardian angel and see me through to the safe harbor of tenure. Some years later, I'm telling you, that Richard Hofstadter made a gob-smacking colossal giant of a mistake in The Age of Reform and you should never count on a Jewish Lutheran to be your guardian angel. There's just too much angst in a Jewish Lutheran to be a good guardian angel. But the larger truth, thirty years later, is that Richard Hofstadter is still Richard Hofstadter and Ralph Luker is still only Ralph Luker. Similarly, I suspect that after I tear David to shreds – ah, offer this critique – this morning, he will still be David Chappell and I will still be my untenured self.

But, first, the compliments: Like The Age of Reform, A Stone of Hope is really a very fine book. It is eminently readable and provocative on every page. The endnotes and long bibliographical essay are substantial and command a scholar's attention. The notes are so important that they should be at the bottom of the page, but they are so substantial that they would have driven a typesetter or formatter crazy. Moreover, in the larger scheme of things, David has certainly accomplished what he set out to do. He has focused our attention on three major groups in relation to the movement and reconfigured our understanding of each of them. Like Mills Thornton's very different book, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, no worthy history of the civil rights movement in the future can be written without taking A Stone of Hope into account. In fact, I'd argue that these two quite different books launch a third generation of scholarship on the civil rights movement. It may be the first generation of books which both engage the sources critically and asks questions of the movement which place it in a wholly new light. The two books certainly rank among the most important dozen books on the movement; they may both rank in the top half-dozen books about the movement.

A Stone of Hope relies on a distinction between the"optimism" of Northern white liberal allies of the civil rights movement and the"hope" of its Southern African-American leadership. This distinction between"optimism" and"hope" is one which David borrows from Christopher Lasch, but it is also finding its way into popular public address. Barack Obama's brilliant speech at the recent Democratic National Convention drew the same distinction. Optimism tends to foolishness about human nature. It believes that – despite the eddies – history is progressive and that what comes after is, by reason of that fact, likely to be better than what came before. Hope knows what the evidence says about human nature. It knows that tomorrow is likely to be a troubled day; that there is little obvious reason to be optimistic. But it knows something greater than that: it knows that there is a power that makes a way out of no way. It's a crucial distinction. If anything, David doesn't push it far enough. I think you could take that distinction right into the fight of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Lyndon Johnson, the voice of optimism and progress, offers to seat two movement delegates on the floor of the convention. Fannie Lou Hamer, the voice of faith and hope, says:"We didn't come all the way to Atlantic City for no two seats!"

The other party that David asks us to look at again in a new light is the children of darkness, the segregationists. His is the first book that tries to take them seriously and examine them on their own terms. And what he shows is remarkable: the opposition thar called itself"massive," the opposition which we thought was formidable, the opposition that could put us in holding cells and, at the outside, kill us, was in fact vulnerable, fragile, and cowering. One of the most important contributions of David's book is to draw out the contrast between the formidably intelligent pro-slavery argument and the remarkably weak defense of racial segregation. There was virtually no pro-segregation theology: its articulation was ragged, fragmented, and anything but"massive." David may not have given sufficient attention to the decline in the white clergy as an important force in Southern intellectual life as a factor in the weakness of pro-segregation theology. Slavery had all sorts of smart theological apologists; in the end, segregation had none.

Now, for back-handed compliments. Two critics of Chappell's book, David Garrow and Charles Eagles, have claimed that a) the book is not a coherent whole – that it is a series of essays which do not hold together; and b) that the book is inadequately researched. Both Garrow and Eagles are wrong. A Stone of Hope has no strong narrative thread; but it identifies and relocates for us major players in the field. That itself is a major accomplishment. Eagles is also wrong to claim that Chappell is the kind of intellectual historian who doesn't want to get"his hands dirty" with the nitty-gritty of massive research. Chappell's hands are plenty dirty. In a moment, however, I will argue that there are telling stimata of cleanliness just at the center of each of his palms.

That is enough applause for David's accomplishments. There is a sense in which his is a very good book because, like Hofstadter, he has the audacity to make some claims that are just gob-smackingly wrong. I think he is most wrong in his reading of Martin Luther King. Among current accounts of King's intellectual life, there are three contenders who make major wrong-headed claims about the theological party to which King belonged. Of these three, my friend, Charles Marsh at the University of Virginia, is furthest from the mark. Marsh wants to think about Martin Luther King as a"Barthian." This, no doubt, grows out of Marsh's interests in continental Protestant theology and his later interest in the movement's theology of praxis. Much as I admire Marsh's work on the theologies of the civil rights era, God's Long Summer, there simply is not a Barthian bone in Martin Luther King's body. King was introduced to Barth by professors who were deeply hostile to continental neo-orthodoxy. He read only the most superficial accounts of it and his professors allowed him to dismiss it as"fundamentalism." Now, it is just very interesting that there are two things that Martin Luther King dismissed as"fundamentalism." One is the continental neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and the other is the folk theology of Martin Luther King, Sr., and the Afro-Baptist church. Somebody needs to look at what King meant by"fundamentalism." Marsh's colleague at the University of Virginia, Wallace Best*, has some interesting ideas about J. H. Jackson, who became King's enemy in the National Baptist Convention, being a Barthian. But King was never a"Barthian." His understanding of Barth was simply too superficial.

A second contender among the current interpreters of King's theology is my friend, Eugene McCarraher at Villanova. Again, I much admire his book, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought. It reviews various traditions of Christian social criticism in America is especially effective on the Catholic personalists. Yet, when he tackles King, McCarraher interprets him as a Tillichian. Now, the only significant link between King and Paul Tillich is the dissertation in which King wrote about the doctrine of God in the theologies of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. You've pretty much missed the whole scene if you don't know here was a graduate student in Boston personalism entering the arena against two important Protestant theologians for whom God was not personal. For Wieman, God was a natural process; for Tillich, God was"ground of being," whatever that is. But whatever that is, it is no person. And King concluded his dissertation largely where he started: the theologies of Wieman and Tillich were inadequate to the degree that their doctrines of God were impersonal. If you knew who King was, where he wrote his dissertation, what his teachers believed, and what Wieman and Tillich thought, you could have written the dissertation in your sleep. The notion that King was a"Tillichian" is ludicrous.

Chappell offers us Martin Luther King, the Niebuhrian. This King is more credible than either Marsh's or McCarraher's. It is not quite so gob-smackingly wrong as the others and, yet, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. Take this hypothetical: I'm doing a historiographical essay on slavery 25 years ago. There's no evading the work of Eugene Genovese and I need a short identification of said historian. He says that he's a Marxist. I see no reason to argue with that. He knows his mind better than I do, so that he is. Skip forward 25 years and I'm writing a biographical essays about the colorful career of a major historian. He says that he's a Catholic. He knows his mind better than I do, so that he is. Now, if I'm to do a decent piece of work in that essay, I've got to trace a colorful trajectory from the one to the other and show how they can be the same person. But unless I know the mind better than the historian himself does, I'm on perilous ground if I claim that Genovese was no Marxist in his early career or no Catholic in his later career.

So Chappell is on very perilous ground. Never once, not once, did King ever say he was a Barthian, a Tillichian, or a Niebuhrian – not once, not ever. Whenever he identified his theological position, King said that he was a personalist. David simply hasn't gotten his hands quite dirty enough to prove that King didn't know his own mind. I don't think that he can; I think that King knew who he was. But Chappell isn't interested in a single conversion. He re-baptizes virtually the whole African-American civil rights leadership into the church of Reinhold Niebuhr. Where the primary sources make no reference to the influence of Niebuhr himself, we get"Niebuhrian themes" which admit them to the one, holy, and apostolic prophetic faith.

Now this is a conversation that David and I have had several times and I'm at the point at which David says:"No, I'm not talking about the whole theology; I'm just talking about the anthropology or the doctrine of man. King had a Niebuhrian anthropology." That is the correct turn for David to make in the argument. It's the right turn for several reasons: 1) he isn't interested in the doctrine of God; 2) Niebuhr actually denied being a theologian. He was a social ethicist and he had, at most, a sort of implied doctrine of God; and 3) David is interested in that part of King's and Niebuhr's anthropology that sees the necessity of using coercion to achieve proximate social justice.

The stigmata of cleanliness at the heart of David's palms is theological liberalism, of which personalism is a major strand. All the research on John Dewey, Gunnar Myrdal, and Arthur Schlesinger is no substitute for it. Secular liberalism and theological liberalism are very different animals. I've just finished reading the yet unpublished documents section of volume six of The Papers of Martin Luther King.** It's interesting because these are documents that Mrs. King withheld from the Project for many years. They are essays, sermons, and speeches from 1946 to 1962. Few, if any, of them have ever been published before. John Dewey, Gunnar Myrdal, and Arthur Schlesinger don't appear in them. Reinhold Niebuhr is barely mentioned. The names that occur again and again in these King sermons and speeches are not found in the index of A Stone of Hope: Harry Emerson Fosdick, George Buttrick, and a host of other mainstream American liberal Protestant preachers of the first half of the 20th century. David never looked at their work as a source of King's ideas. He dismisses Boston personalism and the doctrine of God in favor of a truncated Niebuhrian anthropology. It was King's liberal Protestant teachers at Crozer and Boston – more importantly, to hear King tell it, it was a personal God -- not Reinhold Niebuhr, who came to King's side in efforts at negotiation and coercion from Montgomery to Memphis.

What is it that makes a way out of no way? It isn't a natural process or a"ground of being." It isn't, even, a coercive social ethic, though that may be a necessary vehicle. King would find it surprising and disappointing that we'd have to be reminded of it. The personal God,"our help in ages past, our hope for years to come" – the only god whose name is worthy of"a stone of hope" – He and He, alone, makes a way out of no way.

*Best is now at Princeton University.
**Volume VI of The Papers of Martin Luther King has subsequently been published.

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HAVH Mayer - 11/29/2008

Recent work by Chappell and others is refining and recasting our understanding of the role of religion on both sides of the civil rights struggle. More broadly, however, the segregationist side -- though formidable face-to-face -- was already being depreciated in contemporary historiography. C. Vann Woodward framed Jim Crow as a political ploy, and Kenneth Stampp argued that even the defense of slavery had been wracked by ambivalence.