Black Lives, Black Power, and Black Catholics

Matthew J. Cressler

Barbara Ransby opens her recent New York Times op-ed with a rhetorical question often hurled at the Black Lives Matter movement as a critique. “Why has this generation of black activists failed to produce a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X — a charismatic, messiah-like figure who can lead a major movement?” “The answer,” she argues in her essay, “is a choice, not a deficiency.” Activists have rejected the old-style of centralized leadership that characterized a previous generation of struggle. “This is radical democracy in action.”

That question is a common refrain among critics of contemporary protest. Martin Luther King – or, more specifically, a sanitized myth of Martin Luther King – is regularly deployed against Black Lives Matter protestors to police the boundaries of what is deemed proper protest. Protesters block traffic with cries of “No Justice! No Peace!” – critics reply “King would never disrupt traffic.” Ferguson and Baltimore explode in uprisings – critics retort “King would never condone riots.” Righteous rage boils over – critics insist “King was never hostile or angry.”

Despite the fact that we (thankfully!) have scholars, twitterstorians, and Black Twitter to demythologize this meme, this defanged fantasy King has become a synecdoche of sorts for how many Americans imagine “proper protest.” This is certainly the case with regard to my own area of study, the history of Catholics and race in the United States. All too often, in both history and historiography, “racial justice” is presumed to be equivalent to a particular mode of protest from a particular period in time; namely, Christian liberal interracial efforts to end segregation in the South. These efforts are imagined to begin and end with King, opening with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and closing with his assassination in 1968. This presumption about what racial justice is supposed to look like, about what constitutes proper protest, led one white liberal priest at the time to publicly lament the lack of “Catholic version of Martin Luther King.”

Among the many problems with this imagining of the movement – what Nikhil Pal Singh termed the “civic myth of civil rights” – is that it obscures the lives of those who struggled for racial justice but did not conform to the norms some sought to enforce. This is certainly the case with Black Catholics in the Black Power era. Those looking for Catholic versions of Martin Luther King in southern civil rights struggles will be hard pressed to find them. But when we turn our attention to the decade after King’s death, when we shift our focus away from liberal interracialists and toward Black nationalists and radicals, we find that the assassination of Martin Luther King marked the beginning rather than the end of Black Catholic freedom struggles. Black Power galvanized Black Catholics and provided activists with the tools to transform the Church. When we stop searching for Catholic Martin Luther Kings, what we will find Black Catholic Stokely Carmichaels and Angela Davises.

Over sixty Black Catholics convened in Detroit in April 1968. This was the inaugural meeting of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (BCCC). Born of shock over Martin Luther King’s assassination and rage against Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s inflammatory response to subsequent riots (where he infamously ordered police officers to “shoot-to-kill” looters), this meeting produced a statement that awoke the nation to the presence of Black Catholics. It began: “[T]he Catholic Church in the United States, primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely a part of that society.” According to the BCCC, the Catholic Church “is not cognizant of changing attitudes in the Black community and is not making the necessary, realistic adjustments. The present attitude of the Black community demands that Black people control their own affairs and make decisions for themselves.”

Sister Martin DePorres Grey, who was present at the founding of the BCCC but excluded from full participation, spearheaded the founding of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) that same year. Black women religious pledged themselves “to work unceasingly for the liberation of Black people.” They denounced “expressions of individual and institutional racism found in our society and within our Church” and declared them “to be categorically evil and inimical to the freedom of all men everywhere, and particularly destructive of Black people in America.” NBSC objectives included the eradication of “the powerlessness, the poverty, and this distorted self image of victimized Black people” and the promotion of a “positive self image among ourselves in our Black folk, especially in our Black youth,” as well as the stimulation of “community action aimed at the achievement of social, political, and economic Black power” (Both statements can be found in Cyprian Davis and Jamie Phelps’s edited volume Stamped with the Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans as God’s Image in Black (Orbis, 2004)).

These statements demonstrated the depth to which Black priests and sisters, those who could be called the religious elite of the national Black Catholic community, were influenced by Black Power. In calling for control of Catholic institutions in Black communities, Black priests shared in arguments for self-determination and community control gaining popularity at the time, in large part due to Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s eloquent argument in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967). Black sisters expanded on the points made by Black priests and what is more, directly addressed the psychological wages of institutional racism in the Church. Their attention to improving the Black “self image” bore the influence of Black cultural nationalism, which insisted liberation was impossible without emancipation from what Elijah Muhammad and Marcus Garvey before him termed “mental slavery.”

The BCCC and NBSC are just two of the many new things we see when we stop searching in vain for Catholic Martin Luther Kings and, instead, come to see Black Catholic lives as they are (rather than as some may want them to be). Father George H. Clements, a Black priest and activist who hailed from the South Side of Chicago, is another example of this. He became a priest in 1957 and got his first taste of activism attending the March on Washington in 1963 and answering the call to march in Selma two years later. But Clements had an awakening, he later recalled, “when a bullet whizzed through the head of Martin Luther King.” Over the next year Clements would be instrumental in the founding of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, who’s motto was “Black Power Through Law,” and come to be known as the honorary chaplain of Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush’s Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party.

And so I’ll close with some of Clements’s own words to his fellow Catholics in 1970, Catholics he called on to “dream the impossible dream.” “This is the only way really,” he insisted, “that we can be faithful to the greatest dreamer that ever lived—Jesus Christ. That great man who dreamed impossible dreams and who got lynched on the cross.” What did Clements dream of?

  • A Church where there is no thought of closing inner-city, Black Catholic schools because of money, while allowing suburban white Catholic schools to flourish.
  • A Church where there are Catholic hospitals that give free medical care to the poor.
  • Bishops, priests, and nuns going into the homes of our poor and sharing their meals with them, just as they dine at our country clubs and motels….
  • A Church where Martin Luther King Jr. is accepted as a saint as readily as St. Patrick, St. Boniface or Our Lady of Czestochowa.
  • A Church that ceases to ‘convert’ Black people until they have learned how to understand Black people….
  • A Church that sincerely attempts to bring about Black [self-] determination…

This friend of Fred Hampton, who eulogized Hampton after the Chicago Police Department conspired to kill him in 1969, knew that “a bullet is the answer that is given to many of our dreams.” But, in an echo of Hampton himself who said one could kill the revolutionary but not revolution, Clements did “not believe that anyone can really kill the impossible dreamer.”


Matthew J. Cressler is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston. He is the author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (NYU Press, November 2017). You can connect with him on Twitter @mjcressler. The views expressed here are his own.


Featured Image: By Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [CC0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons






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