A Stone of Hope, Even for an Atheist

by Derrick G. Jeter

“We shall overcome” was the anthem of the civil rights movement. And overcome they did. But why? Did the sixties just provide the right cultural and political ingredients for full racial freedom to percolate in the country? Was it the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was head? Did the movement receive a big push from the Northern liberal establishments—the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Time Magazine? Could it have been that old Jim Crow was tired and couldn’t keep up with the changing times?

Civil rights historian, David L. Chappell doesn’t think so. In his provocative book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, Chappell says the key to the overcoming victory was faith. And not just any faith, but faith in a redeeming and just God—faith in the God who reveals Himself in the Bible. What is remarkable about Chappell’s thesis is not that men like King, and other leaders of the non-violent branch of the movement, were people of faith, but that Chappell is a man without faith. He is an atheist.

Chappell’s book is dense and academic. But it is an honest and thoughtful look into this significant portion of our country’s history. After carefully researching and pondering why black men and women would endure shameful scorn on buses and in restaurants and why they would patiently suffer beatings, having fire hoses turned on them, being thrown into jail, and having dogs set upon them, he concluded that the standard (liberal) political and economic answers were insufficient. The answer must be greater than the simple empowerment of self-interest; the answer must be transformative and transcendent. It was and is. The answer was faith. Chappell could have stuck to the liberal, academic line and no one would have been the wiser—except those who marched with King and endured those beatings and jailings—but he didn’t. And for this, he should be praised.

Christians are notorious for not actually reading and understanding the works of non-Christians before offering banging their bicuspids. This is sheer folly because it damages the reputation of Christ by making His followers look like intellectual doofuses—which many are—to say nothing of the fact that it is unfair and illcivil. Chappell, however, didn’t let his atheism blind him to the truth—he actually read and pondered the writings and speeches of the civil rights leaders, revealing intellectual honest and depth of character.

All one would really have do is listen to King speak and read the Pledge of Nonviolence, that every marcher with King had to sign before being allowed to march, and you could see that the Civil Rights Movement was more than about politics and economic. It was about justice and reconciliation and peace and self-sacrifice and freedom and love. Here, take a look:

1. As you prepare to march meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.

2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.

6. Observe with friends and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Perform regular service for others and the world.

8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstrations.

Radical it was; and truly liberal. But Jesus was a radical and a liberal, if judged by the rules and regulations of his peers. No, the civil rights movement wasn’t about politics, it was about the stone of hope. It was about the teachings of Jesus. And even an honest atheist can see and appreciate that.