Catholic News Service photo
Civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talks with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law July 2, 1964.
Catholic News Service photo
Civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talks with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law July 2, 1964.
WASHINGTON — On Oct. 24, 1963 — a little more than eight months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law — Bishop Robert E. Tracy of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, urged the Second Vatican Council to take a tough line against racism. Speaking for the American bishops, he said doing that would "greatly help the bishops to teach their people."

The bishops of the U.S. really did need all the help they could get back home. While the hierarchy in recent years had become increasingly outspoken on the subject of race, many American Catholics remained unpersuaded.

Only in 1960, after all, had the election of John F. Kennedy as president symbolically marked the end of American Catholics' own experience of being targets of bigotry. Long victimized in this way, the Catholic community could point to relatively few bright spots in its record on justice toward others up to then.

One bright spot was in 1948, when Archbishop -- later Cardinal -- Patrick A. O'Boyle ordered the desegregation of Catholic schools in Washington, six years before the Supreme Court did that for public schools. Culturally speaking, Washington was still a Southern town, and it took courage for Archbishop O'Boyle to do what he did.

Even so, as a senior in a Jesuit high school in Washington a few years later, I listened to a heated argument over segregation between our homeroom teacher and several of my classmates. The young Jesuit insisted it was wrong. The kids maintained it was part of the natural order of things.

That was hardly new. In its day, even slavery was taken for granted. Archbishop John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States, had a black manservant named Charles whom he specified should be freed -- but only after the archbishop's death. The Jesuits in southern Maryland kept slaves to work on their plantations. So did Catholic plantation owners in Louisiana.

Prejudice against blacks flourished among Catholics at less elevated social levels. Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis says that even as their numbers grew in the U.S., the Irish tended to accept slavery where they found it, seeing no reason to disturb "a system which for the first time in their lives had placed others at the bottom of the social ladder."

As a group, the American bishops said nothing about slavery and took neither side in the Civil War. Catholics fought in both the Union and Confederate armies. More than 40 priests served as Union chaplains and about 30 as chaplains to the Confederates.

After the Civil War and well into the 20th century, Catholic leaders were preoccupied with the pastoral care of the huge number of new Catholic immigrants pouring into the country, leaving little time, energy and resources for evangelizing African-Americans.

The bishops' post-World War I "Program of Social Reconstruction," published in 1919, contained progressive proposals on matters like Social Security and labor-management relations. Many of these eventually came to fruition in America. But the document had nothing to say about racial justice and civil rights.

In time all this began to change. While issues like workers' rights and pacifism were the priority issues for Dorothy Day, she and her Catholic Worker movement helped carve out a niche for social activism in American Catholicism. Eloquent voices like that of Jesuit Father John LaFarge began to be raised on behalf of racial justice. Revulsion at Nazi racism helped build support for equality.

Here and there, Catholic interracial groups began springing up, with more than a hundred of these in existence by 1965. Bishops, individually and collectively, issued statements calling for racial justice. Desegregation of Catholic schools and other institutions spread. As the civil rights movement gained traction under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a substantial body of American Catholics were prepared to join the effort.

Large numbers of Catholics took part in Rev. King's famous March on Washington in 1963. Two years later, nearly 400 priests and scores of religious sisters and brothers as well as laypeople from all over the country took part in historic civil rights demonstrations in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. The big civil rights bills of the 1960s received the church's backing. And, as Louisiana's Bishop Tracy had asked, Vatican II in 1965 delivered a strong condemnation of racism which it called "incompatible with God's design."

Nevertheless Catholic opinion on the race issue was divided. Pro-civil rights sentiment encountered public resistance from Catholics in places such as Chicago, Milwaukee and later Boston. Angry rank-and-file Catholics complained that activist bishops and clergy were pushing African-Americans' rights at their expense.

After race riots rocked Washington in 1967, Cardinal O'Boyle issued a pastoral letter that said in part, "Our efforts to eliminate segregated slum housing have been feeble. Our support of desperately needed  programs and job training and job opportunities for unemployed Negroes in our ghettos has been far less than adequate. ... Our welfare programs have too often been paternalistic, demeaning, and inadequate and have weakened family life."

Less than a year later Rev. King was assassinated and violence erupted in Washington and other cities. Now the awful truth was clear: Generous words, peaceful demonstrations, and even laws and court decisions weren't enough to undo the legacy of slavery quickly. The nation had a long, hard slog ahead to accomplish that. And so, it appeared, did American Catholicism.