The civil rights movement was a series of events and developments that profoundly affected and radically changed life in the United States, and Catholics and the Church played important roles.

Setting a date for the beginning of the movement is not that easy. It began in no single place. In some historical estimates, it began with the abolitionists, those Americans who demanded an end to legalized slavery, gradually making themselves heard in the generations before the Civil War.

For other historians, the deciding moment was the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. Although remembered today, not inappropriately, as a bold, wide step forward, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited. It freed slaves in most, but not all, the territory of the 11 states that had withdrawn from the Union to become the Confederate States of America.

It left in bondage slaves in all of Tennessee, a Confederate state; in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, states that had remained within the Union despite their acceptance of slavery; and in parts of Louisiana and Virginia, both also states that had entered the Confederacy.

In fact, it was the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the amendment’s seating in law on Dec. 31, 1865, that slavery at last was outlawed in the United States.

Catholics were among the Americans arguing about slavery, both pro and con, and they were affected by all the events of the time, but they were not major players, given their status as a small and not yet influential minority — except in Louisiana and to a lesser degree in Maryland.

With regard to racial justice and equality, however, no Catholic either in Louisiana or Maryland made history opposing slavery. Catholic New Orleans was a huge slave market. From Galveston, Texas, to Wilmington, Del., Catholics owned slaves. And, perhaps hard to imagine, dioceses and religious congregations also owned slaves.

Plessy v. Ferguson

The Catholic community in these states, and in other states, at the time either lost sight of African-Americans, preoccupied as the bishops and also the laity were by other concerns, many of them of the bread-and-butter variety, or Church efforts for blacks that were concentrated upon rudimentary education or human services such as care for the sick. It is important here to recall the general state of education and of human services at the time.

A candlelight procession led by nuns calmed tensions in East Harlem in New York in 1967. That year, several cities across the United States experienced riots due to civil rights issues.

Racial segregation, eventually the match that ignited the civil rights movement, was set in constitutional law on May 1, 1896. At that time, by a vote of seven to one, with one associate justice abstaining, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that “separate but equal” facilities based on race were in accord with the Constitution. The case was originally about seating in railroad coaches. It came to involve every aspect of life, and in practical terms it meant the deprivation and humiliation of African-Americans virtually throughout much of the United States. What Plessy did not permit in law, it accommodated and empowered as social convention.

The case became the basis of an entire cultural pattern. How did Catholic bishops, priests and laity react? Catholics were gaining numerical strength and political power as the 20th century dawned. There was little, if any, however, Catholic criticism of, and certainly no defiance of, segregation. For Catholics, criticizing the culture created by Plessy was going too far out on a limb.

There were exceptions, specifically in the sense of attention on the part of some bishops and other Catholics to the plight of blacks, a plight inevitably bleak and hopeless because of the widespread, popular frame of mind enabled by Plessy.

Trapped in Surrounding Culture

Katharine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia heiress, took an interest in African-Americans and Native Americans and eventually founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to educate black and Indian youths. At the same time, the Josephite Fathers and the priests of the Society of the Divine Word turned their eyes toward blacks.

St. Katharine Drexel helped blacks in the early 20th century. CNS photo from Pope John Paul II Cultural Center

While these efforts were praiseworthy, the overwhelming current of American Catholic opinion, and organized effort, was to ignore injustices imposed on blacks. It may be hard to imagine such indifference, but segregation was so strict and encompassing that few whites truly knew precisely what blacks experienced.

The formal stance of the Church was to relieve human misery and to equip young blacks for lives easier and more rewarding than those their forebears had known, but the attitude was paternalistic. It was as if blacks were perpetual children, rendered as such by their lack of the aptitude that whites enjoyed.

In this, the Church was trapped in the culture surrounding it, and rare was the program that denied this presupposition about anyone not born white. After all, going beyond the United States, it was the mindset that launched, and certainly fixed in place, the great colonial empires ruled from Europe, including Catholic Belgium, France, Italy and Portugal.

Some Catholics, by the 1920s, came to see these injustices indeed as injustices. Jesuit Father John LaFarge was among them. Editor of America magazine, he had a platform to dissect the social norms so widely prevalent and to call for correction.

Bishops were appointed to dioceses with large black populations and, while never confronting what Plessy had created, they built schools and hospitals for African-Americans. Perhaps unwittingly they sowed the seeds of logical questions that later entered the minds of Catholics. If blacks are entitled to the Christian concern of the Church, how then are they different from other human beings? If they are not different, how can they be treated as if they were?

Then came the terrible events in Europe, in particular the savage anti-Semitism in Germany. No decent person could observe what was being done to Jews by the Adolf Hitler regime and not be repelled. To be sure, it was not the same in this country, although the collective experience of American blacks hardly was exempt from brutality of the most frightful type in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Lynchings were not uncommon. The criminal justice system and judicial action were jokes when it came to justice for blacks. Still, the specter of European Jewry’s sufferings under Hitler caused some Catholics in this country to think.

Always, of course, Catholics, as well as others, simply were kindhearted and prompted by the love of Christ that embraced all. Once, for example, the Ku Klux Klan stopped a train in Alabama and dragged a black man from the train. They led him to a tree along the roadbed, planning to hang him. Unnoticed by the Klan, a Benedictine abbot was on the train. He had not all that much security himself, being a Catholic cleric. Nevertheless, seeing what was happening, he left the train and walked directly to the Klan leader to plead for the man’s life. Ignored, the abbot then knelt in the dirt before the Klan wizard and implored that the man’s life be spared.

The man was hanged, nevertheless, but Christianity drove the abbot, and it drove many other Catholics to recoil at the abuses of blacks.

Jumping on Board

When the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, on May 17, 1954, reversed Plessy, strong currents of interracial justice moved through American Catholic public opinion, but by no means pulled the heartstrings of every American Catholic.

Bishop Vincent Waters of Raleigh, N.C. St. Katharine Drexel helped blacks in the early 20th century. CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Raleigh

To give them their due, the older generation of Southern bishops at the time not only guided the Church through the terrible days of the convent inspection laws, the Ku Klux Klan, the Al Smith campaign of 1928, and limited resources and great demands, but in communities from El Paso, Texas, to Norfolk, Va., Little Rock, Ark., to Jacksonville, Fla., they had made the Church a presence for the good of the entire society.

Some were reluctant to embrace the cause of desegregation. It was not as if any opposed equal rights nor denied the status of human dignity of blacks. Most had worked precisely to enhance this status. Rather, they feared that if they moved too quickly, all would be lost, and in the end neither Catholics as a whole or blacks would be in better straits.

Given the natural course of events, these more cautious bishops were leaving the scene. Succeeding them was a new breed. Having matured in the days just before World War II, and often educated in Europe or in the more intellectually sophisticated centers of the Atlantic Northeast, they saw as the priority the bringing of justice to African-Americans.

Some came from outside the South. Native Southerners, however, were outstanding as bold champions of change, such as Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh, a Virginia native, Tennessee-born Bishop Joseph A. Durick of Nashville, Bishop Joseph Brunini of Natchez-Jackson, himself from Mississippi, and Bishop Carroll T. Dozier of Memphis, also from Virginia.

To be honest, all these bishops headed divided presbyterates. Old ways died hard for more than a few Catholic priests. Others, to their credit, were at the front line.

There were dozens and dozens of priests who marched when the demonstrations started. They were insulted and cursed by many, encouraged by some, but they marched precisely to put the Church in the forefront of the movement to recognize human rights for blacks.

In Mississippi, Father Bernard F. Law, later cardinal-archbishop of Boston, did remarkable things to elevate and validate the image of the Church because of his constant, but often resented, call for rights for blacks.

Swinging Toward Racial Equality

OSV file photo

At the national level, the Catholic bishops were unswervingly behind the civil rights movement, and their series of public statements made their position crystal clear. At the level of the papacy, Pope Paul VI left no question about Catholic teaching and universal Church policy in the matter. For example, he named African-American priests to the episcopacy, a switch from the time when many dioceses would not accept black applicants for the seminary. The arc was swinging toward racial equality in American Catholicism. At the very time so many young Catholics were attending Catholic schools, Catholic education embraced racial equality. Teachers taught it. Catholic publications forthrightly supported it, and at the time when the Catholic press was at its strongest. Young priests were ordained who fully supported civil rights, and some Catholic lay organizations came around, albeit sluggishly.

This hardly is to say that in the 1950s and 1960s American Catholic public opinion, especially in the South, accounted for one great, mighty groundswell for rights for blacks. Many Catholics feared violence. The Church lost ground numerically among whites, although in the end maybe not as much as might be assumed. Bishops and priests lost good will, although again not as much as they had presumed. No social study of American life today escapes the facts that racism lives in this country. The arc, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, swings toward justice. Still, it goes back and forth. As the U.S. bishops wrote in a statement marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington: “The dream of Dr. King and all who marched and worked with him has not yet fully become a reality for many in our country. While we cannot deny the change that has taken place, there remains much to be accomplished.”

Msgr. Owen Campion is OSV chaplain.