The Second American Revolution and the Church

Often termed "The Second American Revolution", the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed some of the most momentous changes in United States history. While events occurred prior and issues continued after, the movement generally covers the period from 1955 with Rosa Parks' stand on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, to 1968, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights (or Fair Housing Act) of 1968. Though the Church did not take a central role in the movement, Catholic leadership would be seen at various times throughout the period showing support for the movement (though there were pockets of resistance, particularly in the South) and the Vatican and U.S. bishops would issue writings supporting the idea of racial equality.

-As early as World War I, African American Catholics sought ways to provide for the needs of parishoners in their communities. In order to insure that their concerns were know to the U.S. Church, a group of African American believers formed the Federated Colored Catholics. For more on this subject, see the exhibit Catholics and Race: The Federated Colored Catholics.

-Archbishop (later Cardinal) James E. Ritter of St. Louis took a bold step forward in 1947 by ordering all schools in the archdiocese to admit African American students, a move that put St. Louis seven years ahead of the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Although some parishoners attempted to fight the order, Ritter's order would remain intact.

-The Catechism of the Catholic Church is also specific in how the membership is to handle racial issues. Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 2, Article 3 of the Catechism deals with Social Justice, which asserts that God created all men; as such "Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design." 

-Pope John XXIII would follow up on the catechism with an encyclical he authored in 1963 titled Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). In it, he asserts that "Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person .... As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature."

-U.S. Catholic bishops would follow the lead of the Vatican by issuing two statements condemning discrimination. In 1959, the statement entitled "Discrimination and the Christian Conscience" not only criticized segregationist attitudes, but also claimed that "No one who bears the name of Christian can deny the universal love of God for all mankind." Four years later, in "On Racial Harmony," the bishops reiterated their previous concerns and added practical ways Catholics could effect change.

-While many religious leaders in the South turned a blind eye to racial problems, not all followed suit. Father Albert Foley, a professor of sociology at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, spent much of his career advocating for social justice in an area that had little desire to change segregationist attitudes. In this article from America magazine, Foley addresses the recent tactics of the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile.

-Catholic social activist Dorothy Day would also address racial problems in her writings. In this article from the March 1965 issue of her magazine The Catholic Worker, Day describes witnessing violence in Mississippi, as well as a sentence on the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

-Racial issues were not confined to the South, and not all Catholics had positive views of the movement. Father James Groppi, a Milwaukee priest and civil rights activist, received an anonymous letter (document 3-1 and 3-2) from a professed Catholic castigating him for his work in social justice. In an ironic statement, the writer asserts that she "would never consider sending my children to a Catholic school if all they show is hatred, resentment, how to start riots, etc."