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.