U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History That Wasn’t

chappellI 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?

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting question about mainline Protestants, Ray. There were many ecumenical leaders (Francis Miller, for one) who wanted the National Council of Churches to come down hard on its critics like J. Howard Pew–who was kicked off the NCC’s laity board. During the 1950s, the hope was that Billy Graham and new evangelicals would ASSIST the mainline reenchant American public life (Niebuhr a lone dissenting voice). It think the mainline wasn’t so much neutral as handicapped and distracted in the 1960s. 1) They were pretty tied to books and middlebrow book culture (see Hedstrom, Rise of LIberal Religion) and never fully embraced radio, TV, pop music like 60s postfundies (see Axel Schaeffer’s 2 books on countercultural evangelicals); 2) The internal mainline debate over civil rights, gay rights, and Vietnam (see Jill Gill’s Embattled Ecumenism) eventually exploded the idea of a “mainline” and allowed postfundies to begin reassembling civil religion on a more partisan yet still post-mainline foundation (in other words, Falwell’s Moral Majority was at least version 2.0, as Sehat’s “moral establishment” notion would suggest). I think what happened to the mainline was in keeping with what happened to New Deal liberalism between 1968-1978: It “collapsed” (see Gerstle, American Crucible) and conservatives just took advantage of the situation.

    So, all that is to say that the mainline was not so much neutral as committed elsewhere. See also Elesha Coffmann’s excellent new book, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Mainline, on these questions.

  2. To the initial question about white Southerners’ response, perhaps Kevin Kruse’s White Flight is the response to Chapell? Suburban “succession” more effective way to maintain the color line than firehouses? (I got Kruse on the brain–book reviews of White Flight coming in from my survey class today–sigh; still better than having to read about the “singer” Billy Graham in a students’ review of the Dochuk book).

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