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A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
David L. Chappell
The University of North Carolina Press, 2004
360 pp., $47.50

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by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese


Hopeful Pessimism

The lessons of the civil rights movement turn out to be quite alien to liberal pieties.

Today, America's self-styled liberals, within the churches as well as without, are mounting a battle to the death to banish all traces of religion from the public square. Casting the dismemberment and murder of unborn babies as individual right—not the right of the baby to life, but the right of the mother to the "ownership" of her body—they angrily vilify those who oppose their campaigns as bigots bent on erasing the separation of church and state. Very much like those who defend same-sex marriage as another inalienable individual right, they promote their cause with a passion and anger quite uncharacteristic of dispassionate liberal rationality. True, the argument from individual rights constitutes the cornerstone of liberalism, but in these cases and others, it is being perversely distorted, primarily through demands that any opposition be condemned as oppression or discriminatory harassment.

These and other movements for a seemingly endless succession of new individual rights have explicitly adopted the model of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, tying their various causes to the moral righteousness of the struggle to abolish legal segregation. But they singularly fail to understand the dynamics of the movement they seek to emulate. In A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, David L. Chappell of the University of Arkansas presents the struggle for civil rights in an arresting new perspective. And his illuminating account implicitly raises important questions about the struggles of our own time.

Chappell takes his title from the famous speech, "I Have a Dream," which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered before the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. In that speech, King said he would return to the South buoyed by the faith "that his people could hew 'a stone of hope' from 'a mountain of despair.' " During the 12 years of King's public career as leader of the movement, legal segregation toppled throughout ...

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