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The Church and the March on Washington: "The shock of relevance"

The fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is an excellent excuse to look into the Commonweal archives. What did Commonweal contributors have to say about the march -- who went, what did they take away, and where did they hope it would lead?

The first to report was Francis E. Kearns, then an assistant professor at Georgetown, who published his account of the march (which he attended along with some other Georgetown folks) in the magazine's September 20, 1963 issue ("Marching for Justice"). For him, the march was a watershed event in the history of religious institutions' engagement with the struggle for civil rights:

Perhaps the most significant gain scored by the march, however, is that, more than any previous incident or demonstration in the field of racial justice, it led great numbers of religious institutions and church members to make an act of commitment. In the past few years it has been the church authorities who have made the proclamations and joined in the rallies, but on August 28th one could see large groups of marchers carrying the banners of Bronx Hebrew congregations or Washington churches. On the speakers platform one could see the familiar bishops, but what was new was the presence in the audience of Washington parish priests, Woodstock seminarians, and suburban Maryland parishioners.

What was significant too was the tone adopted in the speeches by religious spokesmen such as Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, Mathew Ahmann, of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of the American Jewish Congress. Here was not the grandiloquent self-congratulation often reserved for those occasions when the Church condescends to become involved in community affairs, but rather a frank admission of culpable indifference in the past and a promise of greater effort in the future.

Georgetown had a mixed record on racial justice, in Kearns's view, and had responded sluggishly to the civil rights movement. Still, he reported,

when called upon to support the march, the university community responded generously. The administration endorsed the participation of a Georgetown group and offered dormitory space and meals to out-of-town marchers. Moreover, though only thirty to forty marchers were expected from the campus, over 250 students, priests, and lay professors participated. One could sense that many other Catholics at the Lincoln Memorial were taking the first difficult steps toward a Christian stand on the race problem.

Kearns offers an encouraging account of episcopal leadership in D.C.:

The large scale participation of local Catholic groups in the march could be attributed largely to the influence of Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington, who pronounced the rally's invocation. As Chairman of the Washington Interreligious Committee on Race Relations, he had earlier appeared before a District Commissioners' hearing to call for strong regulations to end discrimination in housing; had called upon local churches to consider anti-discrimination clauses in church-related building contracts; had helped establish an apprentice training program for Negroes in the construction trades; and had encourged a program of exchange visits between Negro and white families.

Moreover, through pastoral letters, through instituting recitation of a special prayer for racial justice at all Sunday Masses, and through a variety of other methods, he had brought home to Washington Catholics their responsibilities in the civil rights movement. At the parish church I attend -- where sermons had in the past been concerned largely with the importance of the second collection, the dangers of Communism, or the deficiencies of Protestant theology, where the chief evidence of social interest had been a showing of the movie Operation Abolition -- the shock of relevance was overwhelming.

Kearns was uncertain how, and whether, the march would bear fruit, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still an uncertain prospect:

Now the march has already passed out of the headlines and one of the most important questions concerning its influence remains unanswered -- what effect will it have on the mass of voters in bringing about support in Congress for a strong civil rights bill? Despite the great dignity of the march, despite its reaffirmation of the American tradition of peaceful assembly and petition, despite its re-emphasis of the moral ideas informing the civil rights movement, the march may have had very little effect on the nation's thinking. There is considerable evidence that the position of those unwilling to see the passage of civil rights legislation has so hardened that no peaceful demonstration would have moved them. Thus Southern Democrat Strom Thurmond and Republican Representative Joel Broyhill contented themselves on the evening after the march by pointing out the loss of business revenue to downtown Washington. Similarly, David Lawrence's syndicated column termed the march "a day of public disgrace -- a step backward in the evolution of the American system of government."

Moreover, a new rumor, which even made some of the local radio news broadcasts, has it that all of the New York costume shops were out of rented clerical garb on the day of the march and many of those dressed as priests or ministers were Communist conspirators.

Thurmond is not the only recently-active congressman mentioned in Kearns's account, which concludes:

That the racial equality revolution is still primarily a religious revolution was manifested when Archbishop O'Boyle was backed by other civil rights leaders in his insistence that certain inflammatory remarks be removed from the prepared text of a speech by John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Nevertheless, one wonders how long the religious ideals of the movement would be able to restrain violence should the nation fail to support effective civil rights legislation. During the past few months we have heard many cries of outrage, in the halls of Congress, in letters to the editor, in newspaper editorials, against what is termed the Supreme Court's weakening of "our religious heritage" through its school prayer decisions. It would indeed be more than ironic if the nation now failed to respond to the civil rights movement, the greatest religious crusade of the twentieth century.

Kearns had a chance to elaborate on that point when a Jesuit from Georgetown, the Rev. George H. Dunne, wrote to complain about the "oddly sour note" he detected in Kearns's account of the university's involvement in the March. ("Why the grudging remarks about Georgetown?") That letter was published in the November 1, 1963, issue, with Kearns's unchastened reply:

The chief charge Father Dunne brings against me is that I did not engage in lavish and unrestrained praise (with bells, trumpets, and banners) of the university's participation in the march. I plead guilty.

It seems to me that few religious institutions were entitled to such praise. Can we honestly say that the churches have exercised leadership in the struggle for racial justice? Did the churches really risk much in supporting this legally acceptable and internationally acclaimed rally? For Father Dunne and some few other heroic individuals who have devoted their lives to prodding Catholics into a Christian stand on the race issue, the march was a high point of achievement. For the rest of us it was a beginning -- a time, as was pointed out by various religious spokesmen at the rally, for the frank admission of past culpable indifference and for dedication to the future.

...The administration did endorse participation -- one week before the rally. Such endorsement did require courage and generosity and I want to applaud the administration here just as I did in my previous article. But what purpose would be served by exaggerating the role of Georgetown or other Catholic groups in the march? Has the stable, old rhetoric or piety and pretense with which we have comforted ourselves in the past ever helped us to be better Christians?

If I had used my article as a vehicle for congratulating churchmen while ignoring their racial sins and mine, I would have insulted the Negro's struggle for justice. Why should Christians be congratulated for starting to practice what they have so long preached? In participating in the racial struggle the white Christian does not make a gift of his aid to the Negro: he does that which it is necessary to do in order to go on regarding himself as a Christian.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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One Catholic institution that has from its very beginning worked for justice for African Americans and American Indians is the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  It was founded by Saint Katherine Drexel, an American heiress from Philadelphia who used her great fortune to help them. The sisters are still at it.

What a contrast with the bishops then and the bishops now! When Law and Mahoney later joined the backlash it became clear that these were bishops of fashion rather than principle. In seeking justice in housing for blacks there were serious problems for the White middle class as weasel real estate brokers destroyed white neighborhoods by stirring panic and fear which led to white flight. People sold homes at depressed prices and became extremely angry. The inattention to the middle class fed the backlash. Nevertheless this was a time when the church was truer to its calling and the message to free the captives was front and center as it should always be. Francis is making sure of that now. 

Mollie, I am sure there must be something about Ted Hesburgh in the archives. He was one of the principal architects of the Civil Rights movement. No account is complete without Hesburgh in it.

This was a time when the gospel was paramount and there was no reference to the "magic" of the sacraments and the poor suffering justly for their sins. The words of the Magnificat were clear and false prophets were in the background unlike our present age. But there is hope as Dolan needed Francis to reconsider the opulence of the bishops that is prevalent. 


Those old articles haven't held up too well, have they?  Kearns seems to think Jews lagged behind "church authorities" in their committment to civil rights.

In the past few years it has been the church authorities who have made the proclamations and joined in the rallies, but on August 28th one could see large groups of marchers carrying the banners of Bronx Hebrew congregations or Washington churches. 


For a brief introduction to actual history see, e.g.:

I guess my main problem with the anniversary of MLK's speech is the HIDEOUS statue erected in his memory and the crude paraphrase of what he actually said in one of his less-inspired moments.

Why a Chinese sculptor?  Are there no African-American sculptors?  His face looks like one of those generic Chinese ancestor portraits.  And if he was such a great orator, why the weird decision to truncate and flatten his words?  Was that the best quotation the boss of this project could come up with?


I hope you will permit me to offer as background (perhaps even as contrast) a few pages I wrote summarizing the question of race as it appeared in the suggestions submitted for the agenda of Vatican II in 1959-1960.  The numbers beween parentheses refer to the pages of the official publication of these vota.

The question of race was much discussed among Catholics in the late 1950s. In September, 1955, the Catholic magazine Jubilee devoted a whole issue to the question, following it two years later with a study of Catholic attitudes towards racial integration which reported that the overwhelming majority of Catholic schools in the South were segregated and that in 1956 three-quarters of Southern Catholics supported segregation. That same year one of the Catholic pioneers in the efforts on behalf of blacks, John LaFarge, S.J., sought the help of a Jesuit superior in obtaining from Pius XII a confirmation of the efforts of Archbishop Rummel to desegregate the Catholic schools in New Orleans, efforts that LaFarge said were being impeded "by the impression that the Archbishop is isolated and disapproved by his own confreres." 

It is unfortunate, however, as an experienced Catholic missionary bishop recently said to me, that the laity have to be those taking the initiative in promoting interracial justice in our country and in urging compliance with the supreme law of the land. We have as yet no clear statement either by the American bishops as a whole (i.e., the Administrative Council), treating the question as a national problem, which it really is; nor by the Bishops of the Southern States treating it as a regional question, so as to guide the faithful in a matter that directly concerns the consciences of Catholics everywhere;...a matter on which the Church's teaching is clear and unequivocal. The point at issue is not that of kindness and charity to the Negro--on that topic, in theory at least, there is no discussion. The point is that the Church's disapproval of a legalized, artificially constructed system (not a "natural solution," as some erroneously have said) that in se is contrary to basic human dignity, and in the present world, especially in the United States, is the source of grave injustices, with their corresponding toll in cultural and moral retardation.

Until and unless the Bishops speak on this matter with some show of unity, the consciences of American Catholics are left in confusion.

Of the twelve bishops (8.1%) who proposed that the issue of race be included in the conciliar agenda five were from states in the north, six were from southern states, and that of O'Boyle came from Washington, D.C., a city with a majority of black residents. Five of these bishops were content with simple references to the problem. Three Ordinaries from northern cities to which large numbers of southern blacks had moved addressed it. Meyer of Chicago (294) described race as an issue that is  "very important in some regions" and asked if it were not related to "the question of the reunion of dissidents." Dearden of Detroit (312) argued that "since in our day errors both theoretical and practical exist about the relationship of the human races, it will be appropriate to make a statement on the unity of the human species and at the same time to reject the error of those who deny the rights of others on this ground." O'Boyle (464) spoke similarly: "In several regions of the United States a lamentable spirit of discrimination and sometimes of hatred exists towards citizens of African origin. If the Ecumenical Council were to state the essential equality of all men, because of their unity in Adam and in Christ, it would bring much honor to the faith and to the Church."

Among the bishops of southern dioceses, Marling of Jefferson City (346) asked for a precise statement on the troubling question of "true and false razismo." Cody (348) noted that the issue was being exploited by Communists "so that the people are being led to the error of thinking that the Church is contrary to the equality of men." By far the most eloquent statements came from Rummel of New Orleans (384-85) and his Auxiliary, Caillouet (509). Rummel pointed out how racism contradicts the doctrines of creation and redemption and asked the Council to bear witness again to their truth. This should include a rejection of all forms of segregation on the basis of race and any kind of efforts to deprive people of their legitimate aspirations. Caillouet was surely thinking of Rummel himself when he asked that the Council's teaching support brave Catholics who were struggling against this injustice. Rummel had encountered bitter opposition when he condemned school segregation in 1953 and again in 1956. In the summer of 1957, Catholic laymen opposed to racial integration had written to Pius XII to challenge Rummel's authority on the matter.

The issue of racism is an interesting test-case for an interpretation of the US Bishops' vota. It is tempting, for example, to conclude that the absence of this concern means that a bishop was not particularly interested in the question. In November 1958, however, the U.S. bishops, urged on by one of the last acts of Pius XII, had issued a statement on the race question; but of the twelve bishop members of the Administrative Board which drew up the statement, only three included it in their vota. Among bishops who did not mention race were some who had taken or were taking courageous public stands on the issue: Lucey, Spellman, Ritter, Waters, and Hallinan. Why did even these bishops not include the question in their proposals to Rome? Was it that they, and other bishops, did not think that this was a suitable topic for an ecumenical council? Did they think Catholic principles on the issue sufficiently clear already?

I have now posted my article on the US bishops' proposals on my blog, and there you can see the notes that accompany these paragraphs:

Cody followed the great Edwin VIncent O'Hara as bishop of Kansas City.  O'Hara integrated Loretto Academy in 1947.  He ordered the other Catholic schools NOT to accept the girls whose racist parents pulled them out of Loretto.


John LaFarge.  Wonderful.  I remember reading about him in Treasure Chest in 1953.

(You consider Jefferson City a southern diocese?  I think most people regard Missouri as a midwestern state.)

Archbishop Rummel arrived in New Orleans about 1936 and began speaking out against segregation immediately.  Most white eople, Catholic and Protestant, were horrified, but over time and with the help of some priests like the Jesuits at Loyola University Fr. John Tuomy, s.j., and another Jesuit whose name I forget, as well as Fr. Vincent O'Connell, s.m., at the major seminary, plus a group of lay people called "The Catholic Committee of the South",  hearts began to change.  

Long before Abp. Rummel there had been some secular anti-segration voices at Tulane University as far back as the 20's when my mother was a student there.  And, of course, many of the Jews also spoke out.  Plus New Orleans had long had some well-educated mixed-race men who also, of course, spoke out.  They even had some newspapers going back into the 19th century. So New Orleans was extremely fortunate to have some leadership.  The small Southern towns rarely had any voices at all speaking out publicly for the black people.  

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