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Catholic Interracialism in New Orleans, 1930-1980: A Historical Survey with Implications for the Post-Katrina Moment


Abstract: Catholic Interracialism in New Orleans, 1930-1980: A Historical Survey with Implications for the Post-Katrina Moment

The actions of the church today, in particular the possibility and limitations of a Catholic interracial program, may be understood as part of a longer historical process of interracial activism in the Catholic church. Explorations of that history in turn provide insight into the complex racial and political order in the city today. In the early 1930s, black Catholic layman Thomas Wyatt Turner called for a national black Catholic organization to represent the voices of black Catholics in the struggle for racial equality. For Turner, blacks needed to be the architects of the movement for racial justice in the Church. Ultimately, the Church’s decision to temper their approach to racial justice resulted in the repression of Turner’s organization, the Federated Colored Catholics, and black self-determination in the Church more generally. By the 1940s, blacks were still attending racially segregated Catholic Churches in New Orleans where the Catholic interracial movement found its strongest supporters. In this period, while some prominent blacks did have a say in the trajectory of the Church’s social action plan, they were still underrepresented at interracial social action meetings. As the Catholic church in New Orleans struggled to implement the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) in the 1950s and 60s, black Catholics once again asked that they be the architects of their own liberation, but once again they were underrepresented. In the 1970s when the Associated Catholic Charities resettled thousands of Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans East, the Church disregarded the impact their resettlement efforts would have on an already economically and politically bereft city. Blacks argued that the economic assistance the Catholic Church provided the Vietnamese community was not the same assistance they offered the black community. In this period, black Catholics reinvigorated by the Black Power movement began to call for the creation of black Catholic clerical and lay organizations. At this point, blacks were done asking for a seat at the table, now they demanded one.

In other words, a complete history of Catholic interracial organizing must necessarily include a discussion of the black Catholic response. Although the Church stumbled to model true racial inclusion in much of the twentieth century, by the twenty-first century, the destruction and suffering left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina allowed the Church to come full circle in its implementation of a Catholic interracial program. Post-Katrina, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, not only provided much needed social services, but it also successfully meditated conflicts between residents and the local and state governments. The Church bridged racial divides through religious worship and verbally committed itself to ensuring that the ‘new’ New Orleans would remain racially and economically diverse. While scholars have glorified specific periods of the Catholic interracial movement arguing that it achieved some change, but ended after integration in the 1960s, my study purports that it has in fact continued well into the twenty-first century. In this post-Katrina moment, the church’s Catholic interracial plan has proven more successful than at any other time in its attempted implementation, in significant part because of black Catholic activism.

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