King anniversary recalls bishop's desegregation efforts in Mississippi

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Ja

By Tim Muldoon

(CNS) — When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress Sept. 24, 2015, he
pointed to the witness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting that a
great nation “fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights
for all their brothers and sisters.”

we remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is important to
recall the hard work of social change that helped bend our nation in the
direction of greater justice. The integration of Catholic parishes and schools
in Mississippi provides an important window into the moral struggles that
existed inside the church’s own institutions, and offers us lessons for today.

the decade between 1955 and 1965, Mississippi was a hotbed of racial unrest,
and Catholic schools and parishes were not immune. It was a period sandwiched
between two racially motivated murders that drew national attention: the
murder of the 14-year-old boy Emmett Till in 1955 and the Freedom Summer (or “Mississippi
burning”) murders of three young civil rights activists in 1964. In Catholic
parishes, groups of whites threatened blacks attending Mass at St. Joseph in
Port Gibson; Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg; St. Joseph in Greenville; and many

Richard Oliver Gerow, head of what is now the Jackson Diocese, had been
nurturing hopes for desegregation of his parishes and schools for years,
keeping meticulous files of racial incidents. A realist, he understood that
episcopal fiat could not undo generations of racial prejudice, and so worked
slowly to develop collaborators.

example in 1954 was in Waveland, where a parishioner threatened black priests
sent by Father Robert E. Pung, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, who
was the rector of St. Augustine Seminary, the first black seminary in the
United States. Father Pung composed a strongly worded letter to the man:

what did the priest come to your parish to do: just one thing — to celebrate
Mass and bring Christ down upon your parish altar and to feed the flock of
Christ with his sacred body. And that the majority of the parishioners looked
upon the priest celebrating holy Mass as a priest of God and not whether he was
colored or white is evident from the fact that last Sunday over three Communion
rails of people received holy Communion from his anointed hands.”

assured the man that these same priests would be praying for him.

Gerow kept an extensive file including this and many other racial incidents. In
an entry from November 1957, he shares the advice he gave to a group of
Catholic men who were distressed at the ill treatment of black parishioners. He

are facing a situation in which we as a small minority are up against a frantic
and unreasonable attitude of a greater majority of the community. If we attempt
to force matters, we are liable to do injury not only to ourselves but also to
those whom we would wish to do help, namely, the Negroes. Imprudent action on
our part might cause them very serious even physical harm.”

position on desegregation was a delicate one, which attempted to balance a
complex array of factors and forces:

First, there were the pastoral needs of black Catholics in the region, some of
whom had to travel to celebrate the sacraments and who sometimes faced verbal
or physical threats.

Second, there were the established parishes comprised mostly of whites,
themselves a minority in a region that was dominated by Protestants.

Third, there were men in both state and local government, not to mention law
enforcement, who were sometimes hostile even to white Catholics, and so the
presence of blacks in Catholic congregations was a further potential danger.

Fourth, there were a growing number of organizations supporting the cause of
integration: organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, as well as Catholic organizations, like the National
Catholic Welfare Conference and the National Catholic Conference for
Interracial Justice, or NCCIJ.

1963, Henry Cabirac Jr. of the NCCIJ began to force the hand of Bishop Gerow,
when Cabirac called for integration of schools at meetings in Mississippi City.
Responding to Cabirac’s advocacy that black families apply for admission to
white Catholic schools, Bishop Gerow wrote in his diary of July 1 the

point is this: School integration is going to come in the course of time, but
at present we are not ready for it. I feel that the first step is to create a
better relationship between the two races.”

wrote guidelines for sermons to be preached throughout the diocese on the moral
demand of integration, but remained convinced that school integration would be
dangerous for black parishioners. Nevertheless, only two days after this entry,
on July 3, the bishop wrote that he had received letters from two black
families requesting admission of their children to schools “which we have
considered white.” He laments being in an embarrassing position, feeling that
“a bit more preparation of our whites is prudent.”

doubt the bishop was sensing great tension in the air. Only two weeks earlier,
the field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, had been assassinated, and
once again the nation’s attention was on Mississippi. The immediate aftermath
of the assassination saw Gerow in a political role to which he was naturally

had been active in drawing together white ministers in the various churches in
Jackson for some time, and in fact had arranged for a meeting that included
black ministers only five weeks earlier. The groups had hoped that their
combined voices might thaw the icy relationship between blacks and the Jackson
Chamber of Commerce. But after the assassination, the bishop felt compelled to
make a public statement which he shared with the press.

opportunity to act decisively happened one year later, July 2, 1964, when
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. Bishop Gerow
issued a statement to the press the next day.

of us, bearing in mind Christ’s law of love, can establish his own personal
motive of reaction to the bill and thus turn this time into an occasion of
spiritual growth. The prophets of strife and distress need not be right.”

Aug. 6, the bishop published a letter to be read in all churches the subsequent
Sunday (Aug. 9), indicating that “qualified Catholic children” would be
admitted to the first grade without respect to race. He called on all Catholics
to “a true Christian spirit by their acceptance of and cooperation in the
implementation of this policy.” In a letter to his chancellor, Bishop Gerow
describes this move as “more in accord with Christian principle than of
segregation.” The following year, he desegregated all the grades in Catholic

recent months, we also have seen tragic examples of racially motivated hate
crimes. Later this year, the U.S. bishops plan to release their first pastoral
letter on racism in nearly 40 years. Mindful of the gifts that people of all
races bring to the community of faith, and of the need to work towards a just
social order, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal
Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said at the launching of the racism
task force last August, “The vile chants of violence against African-Americans
and other people of color, the Jewish people, immigrants, and others offend our
faith, but unite our resolve. Let us not allow the forces of hate to deny the
intrinsic dignity of every human person.”

over a hundred years, Catholic Extension has been serving dioceses with large
populations of the poor, the marginalized and people of color, and have sent
millions of dollars to ensure that they have infrastructure and well-trained church
leaders that will form them for positive social change. Our dream is that these
leaders will, in the words of Pope Francis, “awaken what is deepest and truest”
in the life of the people, and ultimately be the catalyst of transformation in
their communities.

this 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination, we are mindful of all those
Christians who have gone before us in the struggle for a more peaceful and just
society, so that we may be inspired by their example to confront and struggle
with the pressing questions of our day. Bishop Gerow’s extensive efforts to
chronicle the important period of his episcopacy remind us that we, too, live
in the midst of a history that others will remember and judge in the light of
God’s call to live justly.

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is director of mission education for Catholic Extension in Chicago and the
author of many books on Catholic theology and spirituality.

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to this article was Mary Woodward, chancellor of the Jackson Diocese, who
assisted with the Bishop Gerow archive, from which the historical material in
this article is drawn.

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