Harvard Theological Review


White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement*

Curtis J. Evansa1

a1 University of Chicago

In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on the future struggle of African Americans after their successful Montgomery bus boycott. Among the “forces of good,” King saw the indispensable assistance of the federal government, cautioning critics and sympathizers that though government action was “not the whole answer,” it was an “important partial answer.” King was addressing one of the most common criticisms of black activism for civil rights. White conservative Protestants, in the South and North, insisted that race relations would worsen because agitation would only stoke the fears and hatreds of whites and that government action on behalf of blacks was only a form of coercion. King rejected this reasoning by noting that “morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.” He argued that it was true, for example, that laws could never make employers love their black employees, but they could prevent them from refusing to hire blacks because of their skin color. King conceded that society ultimately must depend on “religion and education to alter the errors of the heart and mind,” but he emphatically argued that “it is an immoral act to compel a man to accept injustice until another man's heart is straight.” He added that the law was a form of education in that it instructed citizens about what society regarded as right and appropriate. King asserted that in any case the “habits if not the hearts of people have been and are being altered every day by federal action” and that it would be wrong to undervalue the efficacy and force of law in altering human behavior and social patterns.


* I thank Mark A. Noll for his helpful feedback on a draft of this essay. I have also benefited from his many writings on evangelical Protestants.