A Sign of Contradiction

Fr. August Thompson, 1926-2019
From the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

Earlier this month, on August 10, Fr. August Thompson died at the age of ninety-three. He was a black Catholic priest in the diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, and one of American Catholicism's most important civil-rights leaders. As a black priest in the South during the height of the civil-rights movement, he experienced searing prejudice from white people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Thompson refused to accept this, and specifically challenged the church to be a sign of contradiction in a racist society. He became friends and correspondents with famous American Catholics like John Howard Griffin, another civil-rights activist, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose writings on racism are too often unknown or ignored. Thompson was a much-loved priest in his own diocese, known for his ready smile and his willingness to pray with and bless anyone, no matter who they were. But that graciousness never stopped him from fighting back against the racism that plagued the church he loved—and still afflicts it today.

Thompson was born in 1926 into a poor Catholic family in Baldwin, Louisiana, a small town two hundred miles west of New Orleans. His parents were devout Catholics who said grace before and after meals, and led the children in a family rosary each day. Thompson discerned a calling to the priesthood, and while his white priest was supportive, his own diocese of Lafayette was not. He graduated from seminary in 1957, but his bishop would not accept him as a priest. Bishop Charles Greco of the neighboring diocese of Alexandria did accept him, and he became the first black priest to be ordained there.

While Thompson was grateful to Bishop Greco for being the only Southern bishop willing to ordain him, the two frequently quarrelled, particularly about the treatment of black Catholics in the diocese. In 1963, Thompson gave an extended interview with John Howard Griffin that did not sit well with the bishop. It appeared in that year’s Christmas issue of Ramparts, a Catholic literary and political review; a striking photo of Thompson, under the headline “The Negro and the White Conscience,” takes up nearly the entire cover.

Thompson held nothing back during the interview. His description of what life was like for black Catholics in the South at the time, including black priests, makes for painful, sometimes shocking reading. Unlike their white Catholic counterparts, black Catholics could not attend retreats or days of recollection, both important aspects of Catholic devotional life, due to segregated facilities. Moreover, black Catholics could only attend a white parish if the distance to the closest black parish was considered “inordinate.” In one town where there was only one black Catholic and no black parishes, the white parish went so far as to pay someone to drive the black Catholic to a black parish in another town. And even if a white parish allowed black Catholics to join because the distance to “their” parish was too far, they sat in a section segregated from the white parishioners and were allowed to receive the Eucharist only after the white Catholics had done so.

Thompson told Griffin that he was frequently treated as a second-class citizen within his own church, despite being a priest. Some white Catholics refused to call him “Father,” and he was often prohibited from attending certain churches for First Communions or confirmations. He was not even allowed to say Mass at many white parishes. And as the only black priest in the diocese, he was rarely invited to events with his fellow priests. He summed up how white Catholics in the Deep South viewed him as a black Catholic priest: “a Negro first, a Negro second and finally a priest.”

When asked by Griffin about whether he had spoken to other priests or those in the hierarchy about the treatment of black lay Catholics and black Catholic priests, Thompson simply replied that he had “done [his] share of speaking frankly.” Unfortunately, the hierarchy met his concerns with indifference. “It is suggested,” Thompson said, “that I do not appreciate the complexities of the problem.” And while some bishops spoke out, Thompson explained to Griffin that the response of the church to racism both inside and outside of it was largely silence: “I fear that the silence in some areas is quite loud. Many people think that this silence is a sign that those in authority agree with the situation as it exists.” 

Thompson refused to acquiesce, to remain silent in the face of such hatred. Moreover, black Catholics were unwilling to put up with prejudice in the church any longer. Thompson’s concluding comments on this point are stark:

There are many Catholics who do not go to Church because the pain of this kind of humiliation is simply unbearable. Think of going to Church, going to Communion, and in order to receive Christ you must wait until every white Catholic has gone to the Communion Table and returned to his seat—knowing that you might well be skipped if you approach the altar while some white person was still there. Think of that encouraging people to receive Communion. Many do, of course, but with a deep sense of sickness, and then resentment that even this great Sacrament should be clouded in indignity for them.

Unless the church took a radically different approach, both speaking out and taking action against racism, Thompson envisioned the small black Catholic population becoming even smaller—a dire possibility that would have consequences for the entire church. “Each day we see more Negroes disillusioned with what they call ‘the white man’s Christianity,’” he said. “And each day we see more whites disillusioned by the same scandal; let’s not forget that.”

Greco tried to stop the publication of the interview, first by legal means and then through canon law. Just months before it was published, he believed he had succeeded; he was livid when that was not the case. While Greco personally favored the integration of schools and parishes, he was reluctant to push for it; he thought the church in Alexandria needed to move slowly toward integration so as not to scandalize white parishioners. Given this fear of scandal, it did not go over well to have one of his own priests speak so openly about racism within his own diocese.

Thompson talked about his unwillingness to go uninvited to the homes of dying white Catholics for ‘fear that person would commit an act of hatred on his or her deathbed’ and so put their soul in peril because of their racist reaction to his presence

On November 21, shortly after the interview was published, Greco wrote a scathing letter to Fr. Thompson from Rome. His anger is palpable from beginning to end. He tells Thompson that his appraisal of the church "in her relation to the racial problem in the South is exaggerated, distorted and misleading, and constitutes a defamation." The interview amounted to "unjustified slander" against the church, made all the worse by the fact that it was expressed by a priest "consecrated to protect her interest." Greco ended the letter saying that he expected more from someone who wouldn't be who he was apart from the church.

The Church had done much for you as a Catholic and as a priest, and you owe her all that you are today. But the image of Your Mother the Church which you, her son, have projected to the world is unfair, is a disservice to her and has inflicted a deep wound upon her. We pary [sic] God we may be able to heal it.

A copy of this letter exists because Thompson sent it to his friend, Thomas Merton, to ask the famous monk for advice about how he should respond. The letter came as a shock to Thompson, who felt that he was simply speaking the truth about the situation for black Catholics in the South. How could truth be defamation? Moreover, he told Merton that none of what he said should have been a revelation to Greco given the number of times he had spoken to the bishop about these problems.

Thompson did not allow Greco's letter to keep him from continuing to speak out about the church’s complicity in racial prejudice. He participated in Catholic and interfaith civil-rights workshops and protests, and commented when he deemed it necessary, as he did in 1967 in the case of Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit. Thompson took offense to something Dearden said in the August 30, 1967, issue of the National Catholic Reporter about how the church should respond to racial unrest in his city. Dearden said that the unrest "made it clear that the Catholic Church will have to allocate large amounts of money and personnel to the service of non-Catholics," and that if the church does not do so, "then it will fail to meet her responsibilities."

Thompson wrote a six-page letter to the archbishop taking him to task for these statements. It sounded to Thompson like Dearden wanted to focus the church’s resources on non-Catholics when it came to grappling with racial injustice, thereby showing a lack of understanding of the problem of racism within the Catholic Church itself.

In the letter, Thompson listed for Dearden all of the ways he, as a black Catholic priest, as well as black lay Catholics, were treated as second-class Catholics throughout the United States. Many of them were included in his Ramparts interview. But he emphasized that black Catholics in his diocese continued to experience prejudice, and he told Dearden that this was not isolated to the South, illustrating this point with an experience he had in the North. Earlier that year, when he went to Minneapolis to give a series of sermons for a parish mission, the priest at this parish called another priest in the diocese to ask if Thompson could come speak to his CCD class. The shocking response he received was, “I don’t want any nigger priest talking to my kids.” Given the pervasiveness of racism within the church, Thompson asked Dearden what right the Catholic Church had to say anything to non-Catholics about civil rights. “Can we show the non-Catholic that the Negro is integrated in every phase of Catholic life?" he wrote. "I fear if we went out now and tried to show the non-Catholic Negro we are interested in him as a person he might refer us back to what is happening in our own Church and say something like this: 'Baby get your own home straight first.'"

Thompson's interview with John Howard Griffin and his letter to Archbishop Dearden only scratch the surface in telling us about the kind of oppression he experienced throughout his life. In an unpublished journal John Howard Griffin kept from 1964–1966 about Thompson, Griffin describes in detail the threats Thompson faced on a daily basis. Thompson’s friends and neighbors had businesses and homes bombed, and Thompson received regular threats against his life. “[Thompson] told me that he had been told the Klan promised to get three Negroes in Ferriday,” Griffin writes, “one of whom was ‘that nigger priest.’” But throughout it all, Thompson’s primary concern was for those under his care. He feared for the lives and well-being of his black parishioners, but also expressed concern for the white racists. In a 1997 interview with John Allen, Thompson talked about his unwillingness to go uninvited to the homes of dying white Catholics for "fear that person would commit an act of hatred on his or her deathbed" and so put their soul in peril because of their racist reaction to his presence. As for his own safety, Thompson told Griffin that he was willing to die if God willed it. "Don’t worry so much," he said. "Think how nice it will be if they get me—I can go to Heaven young."

Throughout his entire priesthood, Thompson devoted himself to the problem of racism in the church and in society, and was a voice for black Catholics locally and nationwide. In addition to founding a rent-subsidy housing project, building local community centers, and serving as a board member for a local black cooperative focused on fostering African-American involvement in agricultural initiatives, Fr. Thompson served on the board of National Black Catholic Clergy.

And he kept speaking out. In a 1972 interview, he complained that, while some progress had been made in the church, it was slow and always forced. “White people ask, ‘What do we need to do for you?’” he said. “The question should be, ‘What can we do to make the Church more Christian?’” In a 1982 article about the Silver Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood, Thompson again acknowledged progress, but noted that black Catholics were still not fully included in the life of the Catholic Church. “All we want,” he said, “is a chance to be truly Catholic.” And in the aforementioned 1997 interview with John Allen, Thompson continued to criticize the church, both for its history of racial prejudice and its continued reluctance to be truly countercultural when it came to race relations: “I really feel for the most part that the church has been a follower instead of a leader."

Fr. Thompson retired from active ministry in 1997, and he spent the last few years of his life suffering from dementia. I had the honor of meeting him in 2018, and while he could no longer remember John Howard Griffin or his interactions with Thomas Merton, his eyes lit up when I asked for a blessing at the end of our conversation. Dementia had not robbed him of his liturgical imagination, and he grabbed my arm tightly with his left hand and firmly placed his right hand on my head. He then gave me the most beautiful blessing I have ever received, a blessing whose words were made all the more meaningful by knowing what he had suffered:

Heavenly Father, this is your son, in Jesus he is our brother. Fill him with the grace and blessings he needs to do your work, for there is much work he needs and must do. Allow him to feel your love and let him know that I love him too. May Almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Published in the October 2019 issue: 

Gregory K. Hillis is associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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