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Thinking of C. Vann Woodward on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Thinking of C. Vann Woodward on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Monday, January 18, 2010, is a national holiday to observe the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  While this day is a time to remember the slain civil rights leader, I shall be thinking of someone else on this day--C. Vann Woodward.

Woodward was a white man from Arkansas who became a historian at Yale University.  He was recognized through many honors as one of the most esteemed scholars in America.  Why would I think of him on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Perhaps it is because M.L. King, Jr. called Woodward's book. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, "the historical Bible of the civil rights movement."  The general reason I think of Woodward on this day is because he helped us to put the civil rights movement in its historical context.  Unless we do that, we do not know how to evaluate the progress that has been made or identify the challenges which exist.

In his great book of readable essays, The Burden of Southern History, Woodward explains how the civil rights movement should be understood as "Reconstruction II."  In other words, the civil rights movement came into being in order to finish the work of Reconstruction, which failed ten years following the American Civil War.

Following the Civil War, the states approved three amendments to the Constitution of the United States--the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.  After ten years of living under the Congressional plans for Reconstruction of the South, white Southerners began to rebel in 1874 when Ulysses S. Grant was President.  Throughout the South, armed white militias overthrew local governments and generally intimidated African-Americans, a number of whom were killed.  Often with support from much of the Northern press, the President and the Congress basically declined to resist the rebellion across the South.  As a result, whites reclaimed political control which they had lost to Northern whites and African-Americans.  As they reclaimed control of the political structure of the states, they said, in effect, we will abide by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, but we will not abide by the 14th Amendment, which guarantees that no state shall deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or the 15th Amendment, which guarantees that race is no barrier to the right to vote.  Instead, they set up the "Jim Crow laws."

As Woodward explains, what the civil rights movement was trying to accomplish was to demand that all the states observe the Constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment.  What had been on the books for almost a century needed to be enforced.  No longer would it be acceptable for Southern states to maintain state laws in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments.  In other words, the civil rights movement was Reconstruction II.  What had not been done in the 1870's had to be done in the 1960's.

Woodward had a further way of explaining what was at stake in the civil rights movement.  Following the Civil War there were two separate challenges facing the nation.  One was freedom; the other was equality.  The nation, North and South, was ready to grant freedom to those who had been slaves.  It was not ready to grant freed people their equality under the law and in society.  Probably the reason the Southern states got away with observing the 13th Amendment while ignoring the 14th and 15th Amendments was because there was a lot of moral support across the whole country for freedom, but not for equality. 

M.L. King, Jr. spoke eloquently that African-Americans were long overdue to receive the equality the Constitution promised, and that without equality there is no full freedom.

When we put the civil rights movement into historical context, then we can see two things.  Certainly, we can see that America has made tremendous progress since the civil rights movement of the 1960's.  Jim Crow is dead, and there is no question that the 14th and 15th Amendments will be enforced.  Those who say we have not made any progress need to remember these facts.

At the same time, we can see that the value of equality is still a challenge.  The value of equality is not exhausted by equality under the law.  It is a social value which has to be fulfilled in relationships beyond the law.  I think M.L. King, Jr. understood more than anyone how this social value can be realized and sustained only by the mindset which is rooted in a Christian theological perspective.  The belief that we are created in the image of God, and that all of us are redeemed by the cross of Jesus Christ, is the deep source from which the springs of equality in our society continue to flow.  The way he drew upon the theological and spiritual resources of the Bible and the Christian faith can continue to inspire us today as we continue to meet the challenges before us. 

As an example of the way King presented the legal struggle of the civil rights movement in the context of  faith, see his powerful sermon,  "The Death of Evil upon the Seashore."    M.L. King, Jr. wrote:   "In our own American struggle for freedom and justice, we are seeing the death of evil.  In 1619, the Negro was brought to American from the soils of Africa.  For more than two hundred years Africa was raped and plundered, her native kingdoms disorganized, and her people and rulers demoralized.  In America, the Negro slave was merely a depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine....

"The came the day when Abraham Lincoln faced squarely this matter of slavery.  His torments and vascillations are well-known, yet the conclusion of his search is embodied in these words:  'In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,--honourable alike in what we give and what we preserve.'  On this moral foundation Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that brought an end to chattel slavery....

"The Emancipation Proclamation did not, however, bring full freedom to the Negro, for although he enjoyed certain political and social opportunities during the Reconstruction, the Negro soon discovered that the pharaohs of the South were determined to keep him in slavery.  Certainly the Emancipation Proclamation brought him nearer to the Red Sea, but it did not guarantee his passage through parted waters.  Racial segregation, backed by a decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1896, was a new form of slavery disguised by certain niceties of complexity....

"Today [King was writing in the 1960's] we are witnessing a massive change.  A world-shaking decree by the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court opened the Red Sea and the forces of justice are moving to the other side.  The Court decreed an end to the old Plessy decision of 1896 and affirmed that separate facilities are inherently unequal and that to segregate a child on the basis of race is to deny the child an equal legal protection.  This decision is a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinterited people.  Looking back, we see the forces of segregation gradually dying on the seashore.  The problem is far from solved and gigantic mountains of opposition lie ahead, but at least we have left Egypt, and with patent yet firm determination we shall reach the promised land.  Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation shall not survive forever.  A Red Sea passage in history ultimately brings the forces of goodness to victory, and the closing of the same water marks the doom and destuction of the forces of evil"  (Strength to Love, Harper & Row Pocketbooks, 1964, second printing 1968, Pp. 75-77).

In this excerpt from one of his sermons, we get a glimpse of what made King such a powerful force in American history.  He clearly knew that the movement he personified and led was a movement to accomplish what Woodward called Reconstruction II.  For a task of such historic significance, there had to be a deeper spiritual and moral foundation.

We may be finished with Reconstruction II, but we are all still dealing with living according to the spiritual foundation.