From MLK, to Barack Obama
Eggs Don’t Break, When the Right Pressure Is Applied
“The triumph of civil rights was an omelette that broke miraculously few eggs” (153). This phrase of David L. Chappell’s could be construed through various different avenues. The first interpretation being that the leaders of the movement did not create much clout or really do much of anything with force behind it. Society’s natural progress dealt with the issue of segregation on its own. Blacks in the south just through time stopped being disenfranchised by their white neighbors. Thus, not too many feathers were ruffled and not too many eggs were broken. Another option is that the movement was progressive and assertive, but the strength used did not account for much physical damage. The blacks and black supporters in the south put up a true battle against segregation, a battle without weapons such as guns or knifes though. These eggs were manhandled a bit, but few cracked. The latter proposal is obviously true for those who have even a broad based knowledge of the civil rights movement. Chappell thinking would have been that the first egg possibility is just not plausible or effective in any way. If the movement failed to generate any true motion, no pressure would have been put on the egg, but no omelette would have been made as well. Chappell’s argument here is against the views of liberalism, which in his mind would have been actually been a low cost, low gain option. However, as stated, this didn’t happen in the movement. Chappell argues that the methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr., other leaders, and his supporters were ones of realism and coercion, like the second egg. He supports the more aggressive Niebuhrian view, which becomes the idea that desegregation won’t happen naturally, but must be pressed forward through action. Chappell explains in A Stone of Hope how the abandonment of liberalism was key to the success of the civil rights movement. Chappell uses this piece to elaborate on why and to what degrees the movement had success due to embracing the ideas of men like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was drastically opposed to liberalism.
He feels that the reason for the success of the movement was first and foremost, not using liberal ideals. “The movement’s hope was something very different from the liberals’ optimism” (86). Chappell proposes that the “optimism” of liberalism does not cause or create any change. He spends just about as much time chastising liberal thinkers like Gunnar Myrdal and Arthur Schlesinger, as he does complimenting those who he believes are on his side. Chappell rejects Myrdal’s ideas that “ultimately the American Creed will come out on top” and in believing solely with “the magic of education” (44). Chappell prefers the mindsets of King, Niebuhr, and Baynard Rustin, who believe in the fact that action will prevail. According to Chappell, some of Rustin’s ideals were “the antithesis of Mydralian faith” (55). Rustin embraced the concepts of Niebuhrian pessimism by not believing that change would occur naturally. He felt that political action was required to change the status quo, and without that action, the status quo wouldn’t change.
Chappell sees the ideals of Rustin and Niebuhr directly in King. King is a stanch pacifist, but he also can appreciate Niebuhrism as well. In fact, Chappell attributes King’s wide spread fame notoriety directly and solely to his use of Niebuhrian tactics in the movement. “…what makes King a world-historian figure is his Niebuhrian pessimism about human institutions and his Niebuhrian insistence that coercion is tragically necessary to achieve justice” (53). King did not believe that standing around and believing that things were going to magically happen. King is sometimes cited as being more liberal, while Chappell acknowledges this fact, he also realizes that the coercion he implements throughout the movement show he does not buy into the liberal optimism. “It is Niebuhr… whom King quotes in his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” (54). Chappell believes that King at heart is a Niebuhrian.
In addition to his fervent admonishing of liberalism, Chappell displays the other aspects of the movement, but does it still through an anti-optimistic light. It does truly seem “miraculous” that the civil rights movement put forth so much struggle without a large casualty mark. Chappell goes on to say in the egg scenario that, “the costs of victory seem, in historical perspective, out of proportion to the evil remedied, and seem to require explanation” (153). The civil rights movement very well could have been done through high casualty means, but King’s background of studying nonviolent Gandhi comes into play to prevent that. Chappell does not see the Gandhi aspect as bad though. He considered Gandhi to be with the pessimists. The use of non-violent coercion still directly matches Niebuhr’s ideals, and Niebuhr’s ideals are the crux of Chappell’s argument. Rustin’s “only practical way was nonviolent direct action,” and yet Chappell considers him a beacon of anti-liberalism (55). It must be made clear that Niebuhr wanted action and coercion. In his opinion, violence could be seen as an option, but anyone who did not embrace liberalism was good enough.
Chappell sees religion to some degree as a vehicle for this change. King used religion to inspire, communicate, and gather his crowds. Chappell considers the black church widely formative to the degree that much of the movement is rooted in religion, as Chappell spends a high volume of his book dealing with. With so many participants feeling “a kind of inner strength” from God to protest and boycott, it provided as great base for the movement (94).
Chappell also cites an old adage about running away from a bear as a reason for the success of civil rights. Two guys are going into the woods, and one explains his fancy running shoes by saying “I don’t have to outrun a bear. I just have to out run you” (182). Chappell proposes that the movement did not need to be massive and have total black solidarity, but just be a bit more expansive and have a little more solidarity than the anti-segregationists. “The civil rights movement did not overcome resistance by overwhelming force of numbers” (182). This is just yet another example to show how effectively coercion impacted the civil rights movement. The Niebuhrian methods used by members of the movement did not have to be vastly popular, but simply more popular than their white counterparts.
By disregarding the false ideas of liberalism, the civil rights movement was able to gain ground