“It’s About Time They Got Here”: Catholics and the Civil Rights MovementRoundup
tags: racism, Catholic Church, urban history
Today we focus on a brighter spot in American Catholic history: the Church and the Civil Rights Movement. Many Catholics were late to the movement, while some were early. By the time Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was organizing marches nationwide, it was clear to Catholics that individual charity, though admirable, didn’t suffice. The underlying racist system had to be challenged and overcome.
Besides the Josephites, many other priests and religious dedicated their lives to the Black community. St. Katharine Drexel founded over fifty schools for African Americans, including Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation’s only historically Black Catholic college. In Brooklyn, Father Bernard Quinn (who’s also being considered for sainthood) founded several schools, parishes and orphanages for Black Catholics across Long Island. There were countless other examples of similar people in cities across the nation.
But beyond charitable endeavors, there was still the question of racism inside and outside the Church. Beginning in the 1920’s, groups like the Federated Colored Catholics and the Catholic Interracial Council took steps to address this, but as a whole the Church was slow to get involved. Individual Catholics might not publicly endorse segregation, but they certainly accepted it well into the sixties. Still, it’s important to note there were always exceptions.
Among them was a U.S. cavalry officer turned Jesuit priest: John Markoe. Starting in the 1920’s, for nearly fifty years he led sit-ins, marches, and boycotts throughout the Midwest. For helping desegregate St. Louis University, a racist archbishop banned Markoe from “his” archdiocese. But for Markoe, racism was “a God-damned thing. And that’s two words: God-damned.” As race riots swept America at the time of his death in 1967, he told fellow Jesuits never to “give an inch.” NAACP leader Roy Wilkins said that Markoe “fought the Civil Rights battle long before it became respectable, or even popular.”
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