Fighting for racial equality in the 1960s

| February 16, 2011 | 0 Comments

Each month during its centennial year celebration, The Catholic Spirit will look back at how the newspaper covered news and personalities significant to Catholics both locally and nationally. This month, in honor of Black History Month, the focus is on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Marchers in Selma, Ala., March 10, 1965, show support for voting rights for blacks. CNS file photo from St. Louis Review

The 1960s were tumultuous times for race relations in the United States. The preceding decade saw civil rights successes, such as the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., in which the justices ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks provided leadership and inspiration to the civil rights movement.

But there were also sad events, including the racially motivated murder in Mississippi in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till, as well as widespread prejudice, discrimination and denial of rights. Locally, the 1960s saw the displacement of African-Americans from the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul due to the construction of I-94 — forcing residents to move to other parts of the city where housing discrimination was common.

In many cases, Catholics — priests, religious and laity — were supportive of racial equality. But there also were many Catholics reticent or opposed to the cause.

During the 1960s, the Catholic Bulletin (the predecessor of The Catholic Spirit) devoted a significant amount of coverage to the civil rights movement in articles as well as editorials that advocated for justice and equal rights for black men and women.

The following are a few examples of news coverage of key events from that time written by Bulletin journalists. Readers should note that although terms such as “black” and “African-American” are in standard usage today, the term “Negro” was commonplace when these articles were written.

On Aug. 28, 1963, about 200,000 people joined the March on Washington, where they heard the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. the Catholic Bulletin reported the following week that 58 Minnesotans were among those who “marched for jobs and freedom equality among the races” and met with the state’s congressional delegation.

One of the 18 Minnesota clergymen attending the march was Father Ed Flahavan, who “‘won’ his trip in a drawing among seven Nazareth Hall priests who had contributed the money for one of them to go.”

On Sept. 15, 1963, four girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Ala., were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a frequent location for civil rights meetings.

Catholic Bulletin editor Bernard Casserly condemned the attack, noting that “only a madman could have been responsible for such a deed.” He wrote in an editorial, however, that everyone must make a commitment to ending the prejudice that fuels such terrible acts.

“Who will throw the first stone at Alabama today?” Casserly wrote on Sept. 20, 1963.

“The blind and unreasoning hatred that brought shattering death to four teen-age girls in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist church last Sunday morning is reflected in the hearts of every man who ever let prejudice color his emotions. It is easy to wax eloquent over the unconscionable slaughter of these children, but what would you say to the parents of Cynthia, Carol, Addie Mae and Denise?

What could you tell them you had ever done that would help dry their tears.

“Most of us, unfortunately, would have to remain mute. Most of us could only say, if we were honest with ourselves, that we have done little to erase the great stain of discrimination that has darkened the lives of our Negro brothers. The sin of prejudice is no stranger to our souls. . . .

“We must do more than cooperate with ‘no discrimination’ laws. We must invite Negroes into our homes, our parishes, our social clubs and our businesses, and we must make them feel welcome. The only way to end centuries of prejudice and oppression is to begin by offering love and compassion. The fuse on the bomb that snuffed out four lovely young lives in Birmingham last Sunday was a long time sputtering. Let us look to it that no more are lighted.”

A follow-up article noted that “students of St. Mark’s school, St. Paul, took up a collection among themselves . . . and sent $129.81 to Birmingham, Ala., to help rebuild the Baptist church.”

On Sept. 27, 1963, the Catholic Bulletin published an anonymous letter to the editor that was shocking for the hate and prejudice it revealed. The letter was in response to an editorial the previous week (see above) that called for whites to reach out to the black community and welcome its members into their homes and churches.

“I just wondered if there isn’t something the matter with you, that is your mind. Are you honestly advocating that we white people ask the Negroes in our homes?” asked the letter-writer from St. Paul, who went on to voice support for segregation and housing discrimination. The writer wondered if editor Bernard Casserly might be considering a run for political office and was trying to attract the “n***** vote.”

Casserly, in an editorial in the same issue, said he was making an exception to the newspaper’s policy against publishing anonymous letters  — no doubt because he believed this letter offered a teachable moment. If anyone thought the prejudice that existed in the South couldn’t be found in Minnesota, this letter would lay the doubts to rest. It also offered an opportunity to reiterate his past calls for social integration and fair housing laws.

“The opinions expressed by our unknown correspondent indicate that the battle to wipe out discrimination is nowhere near over in the North,” Casserly wrote. “It is up to our police and courts to enforce the no-discrimination laws and our schools, churches and public information media to redouble their efforts to make our nation truly a land of the free.”

Catholic Bulletin news editor Albert de Zutter wrote about an experience in the Nov. 1, 1963 issue of the Catholic Bulletin that was, in part, a response to what recent editorials in the newspaper were calling for: whites and blacks getting to know one another better on a personal level.

“My wife and I and some 35 other Twin Cities area couples went visiting Sunday afternoon,” de Zutter wrote in his first-person account. “We all went to see couples we had never met before. Many of us also went to neighborhoods that were unfamiliar to us. All the visiting couples were white; our hosts were Negroes.”

De Zutter went on to explain that on this “Home Visit Sunday” he and his wife visited two couples — Lafayette and Pauline Cullars in St. Paul, and Earl and Jaqueline Bowman in Minneapolis. It was the first time the de Zutters had ever entered the home of a black family.

The couples talked about their families, jobs and homes. They shared snacks and beverages. The story de Zutter wrote is striking in its ordinariness and its focus on the simple interactions between two families who apparently enjoyed each other’s company.
But, de Zutter added, “there were lessons to be learned about race, too:

“That though the population of the area in which the Bowmans live is more than half Negro, Mrs. Bowman was refused admittance to an ‘open house’ at a home for sale;

“That a Negro can wait and wait and still be ignored at a department store, and finally have to talk to the manager to get service;
“That a Negro is often told, ‘You don’t want these shoes (or this car), they’re too expensive for you.’

“That a Negro often finds that all the tables in a half empty restaurant are ‘reserved’ except the one in the far corner, or perhaps one in a ‘private dining room.’

“‘Here in Minneapolis,’ I asked to make sure.

“ ‘Right here in Minneapolis.’ ”

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 that year. It prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin, and it gave the federal government powers to enforce desegregation.

Editor Bernard Casserly, while noting that much work was still needed to change minds and achieve true equality, was a strong supporter of the legislation.

“It is hard to restrain our enthusiasm about the comprehensive Civil Rights bill of 1964,” he wrote just before the July 4 holiday. “Its provisions are so far-reaching that we will be a long time taking its full measure. Immediately it will not dry the tears in Birmingham, heal the wounds in Little Rock, or stop the flow of blood in St. Augustine. But it is a new Declaration of Independence for the Negro and other minority group members — a pledge with legal guarantees that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

During 1964 and 1965, the Catholic Bulletin published stories about the Mississippi Summer Project. In July 1964, the Minnesota Committee on Religion and Race called on churches to help raise funds for the Mississippi project and the 17 students from Minnesota taking part at that time in its efforts to register black voters and provide other support.

After the Bulletin published an interview in March 1965 with three archdiocesan priests who visited civil rights workers in Mississippi, a fund to aid the workers was set up because of the interest generated by the article.

A few weeks later, several archdiocesan priests and others from Minnesota participated in the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala. Only the last of the three marches made it to its destination of Montgomery, Ala.; the first, which began on March 7, 1965, became known as “bloody Sunday” because marchers were beaten with billy clubs and targeted with tear gas.

“We are proud that Catholic priests from the Archdiocese of St. Paul . . . have demonstrated their commitment to love for their fellowman and equal justice under law by their visits to Selma,” wrote editor Bernard Casserly on March 19, 1965. “Many of those who could not go also testified to their concern by taking part in several rallies in the Twin Cities. Lay men and women were joined by priests in these demonstrations of sympathy. Even the black and white habits of our Sisters were seen for the first time expressing their involvement in the most dramatic problem of the day.”

Later in the editorial, Casserly said: “Another practical value resulted from the presence of Northern clergymen among the ranks of the marching Southern Negroes. One of the area priests who returned from Selma tells in today’s issue of the Bulletin how the whites were mixed among the Negroes along the line of the march. Why? So it would be more difficult for the state troopers and sheriff’s possemen to concentrate their blows on the Negroes.”

The death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was covered in a number of stories and commentaries. Pope Paul VI called Rev. King’s assassination a “cowardly and atrocious killing.” Another story noted that hundreds of college students walked the length of Summit Avenue in St. Paul with a banner mourning King’s death. The same story noted that Coadjutor Archbishop Leo Byrne was among those attending Rev. King’s funeral in Atlanta.

“Whether he was leading a protest march, standing in silent mourning, meeting with government officials, or staying in jail, Dr. King was always a representative of the [Christian] church,” wrote editor Bernard Casserly. “He challenged that church to do more than it was to help the victims of poverty and prejudice. He showed the church how to move actively into the area of civil rights by protests, marches, prayer-ins, picketing, lobbying and public pressure of all kinds. He was in the vanguard of church involvement in the marketplace. The American church will live long in his shadow.”

We have made great strides for racial equality during the four decades since these stories and editorials were written. But racism and prejudice still exist in our society, in many of our churches and in many of our own families. Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn wrote about the problem in a 2003 pastoral letter on racism, which can be accessed on the archdiocesan website at

His letter and this look back at history offer a chance to educate ourselves and reflect on the issues our brothers and sisters faced in the past as well as the ones we still need to address today.

Joe Towalski is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

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Category: Looking Back, Spotlight