St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was racially segregated during the Jim Crow era.
St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was racially segregated during the Jim Crow era.

When it came to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Catholic Church played an ambivalent, unclear role. Most church leaders in the South refused to challenge the morality of state sanctioned racial segregation. Though the average white Catholic generally held racial views similar to their fellow white Southerners, there were some notable exceptions. Overall, the Catholic Church, itself an outsider within the largely Protestant South, failed to take an active role in the organized mass protests against racial discrimination but did witness some efforts by individual members to aid the cause of civil rights.

Racial Segregation and Catholicism

Even if personally they found racial segregation immoral, the Catholic leadership allowed separation in the churches. In Louisiana, the state with the largest black Catholic population, blacks could, at times, suffer humiliations in church. Though officially welcomed at any Catholic Church in their state, blacks were nonetheless segregated during services. The usual pattern was for majority white parishes to allow blacks to sit separately in the rear pews. In Alabama, blacks often received communion last.

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

The response of the Catholic Church in Alabama to mass demonstrations in Birmingham highlights a gradualistic, fairly conservative approach to civil rights by church leaders. Perhaps the most visible evidence of this gradualism came in a 1963 open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. In “A Call for Unity,” eight white Birmingham, Alabama, clergymen denounced King’s civil rights organization as outsiders seeking to destroy the racial harmony of the city. Though acknowledging the grievances of blacks, and that everyone deserved basic human respect, the authors asked blacks to accept the racial situation for the time being.

One of the authors was a Catholic official. Joseph E. Durick was the Auxiliary Bishop of Mobile, Alabama, historically one of the largest and most important Catholic regions in the South. Bishop Durick, by signing the open letter to the civil rights leader, demonstrated the position of the Alabama Catholic Church leadership during the Movement. The state Archbishop, Thomas J. Toole, for example, denied priests the right to participate in demonstrations or speak out against racial segregation. The officials upheld human rights in theory but refused to give legitimacy to protesters, such as King, who broke prevailing state segregation laws.

Southern Catholic Interracial Organizations

There were attempts among the Catholic laity to affect change. Both the Southeastern Regional Interracial Commission (SERINCO) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) worked to eradicate legal southern racism. The CHR, organized in 1949, aimed to end racial segregation within Catholic churches. The group held integrated masses and sent petitions to the Archbishop. Likewise, SERINCO, founded in 1948 among college students, held interracial masses and spoke openly with the archbishop about lifting the ban on race mixing in churches.

Militant Catholic Clergy

Some southern clergy refused to acquiesce in the official ban against questioning racial discrimination against blacks. In 1961, Father Albert Foley brokered a deal with Joseph Langan, the Catholic Mayor of Mobile, Alabama, to desegregate downtown eating establishments. Even earlier, in 1956, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, declared the gradual integration of all Catholic schools, churches and hospitals.