I had my students in a course called “Modern America” read David Chappell’s book, A Stone of Hope, that recounts the Civil Rights Movement through the idea of a particular kind of prophetic religion. As many readers of this blog I am sure know, Chappell received grief from fellow historians who had also written about religion and the Movement but had not made the sort of grand claims Chappell did for his book.
While my students and I worked through the book and the critiques, one point came through that seemed relatively beyond dispute, Chappell was the first historian to deal with what could have happened during the Civil Right era, but didn’t. Or, as he writes, “Why didn’t the white South put up a better fight a hundred [after the Civil War]?” I thought that indeed, was a very valid question to address. Chappell’s interpretative lens seemed to be an intellectual history of neutralism–or how the Civil Rights Movement neutralized white Southerners who might have reacted violently in a broader and more deadly way.
My students and I found it interesting that Chappell seemed willing to identify a line that separated racism from the willingness to act violently on that racism. As historians, it seems to me that we often focus on THE action–the fight, the protest, the war, the movement, the debate–but not on how certain groups and people who seemed likely to act chose not to act at certain moments. Along these lines, we wondered how the decision by both Eisenhower and Kennedy to send troops into the South at certain moments influenced subsequent conflicts. And, of course, we recognized the the Civil Rights Movement did not persist without casualties. Yet, Chappell makes a very big deal out of the relatively small number of fatalities in the American Civil Rights Movement.
In a broader sense, had Chappell opened a new line of inquiry for historians to concentrate on? Do we look into the moments when neutrality or non-action was the significant aspect of history rather than action? What other moments fit into this interpretative strategy, if, in fact, it is one? Does the relatively little reaction from mainline Protestant elite to their decline of power in the postwar period qualify as similar example? Is there a historiography on the neutralization of action that might otherwise have defined a era?