Catholic leaders closely watched racial segregation issues of 50 years ago
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Arkansas Catholic) - Fifty years ago, segregation was just “understood” in the South. It was not only a part of the culture; state laws enforced it.
Under the Jim Crow “separate but equal” laws, public facilities were maintained for both black and white citizens. This included schools, bathrooms, even water fountains. On buses, blacks sat in the back. In movie theaters, they sat in the balcony. Even churches were segregated.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL? - Children smile for the camera in 1949 at St. Bartholomew School in Little Rock, Ark. The school served black students until it closed in 1974. (Diocese of Little Rock Archives)
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the “Central High Crisis” in Little Rock. Though the Catholic Church in Arkansas was not directly involved, this shameful event, like so many others of its time, challenged the Church to take a long, hard look at her “silent acceptance” of segregation.
John Gillam, 88, said everyone knew where blacks could go and what they could say or do. “Your parents told you what your place was,” he said.
Gillam, a lifelong parishioner of St. Bartholomew Church in Little Rock, said at stores “you were probably going to get waited on last” if at all.
Fear of violence maintained this practice until the court system began to step in. In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional.
In the Diocese of Little Rock, Bishop Albert Fletcher saw the landmark decision as an opportunity for change. In an Aug. 3, 1954, letter to all the state’s Catholics, he wrote that even though Catholic schools are private, it is “a mistaken idea” to think that they would stay segregated.
He explained that the diocese had operated separate churches and schools because of the state’s laws. The court’s decision “clears the way legally for the Church to act more freely in giving to all races the same benefits.”
The bishop did not indicate a timeline for the integration of schools. “It is practically impossible for such a change to be made effective immediately in all places,” he wrote.
However, “the goal of the Church in the diocese will be that ‘no Catholic student is refused admission to a Catholic school on account of race or color.’”
On May 21, 1954, The Guardian, now Arkansas Catholic, reported there were 900 black Catholics in Arkansas. Eight elementary and two high schools operated in black parishes. Of the 964 enrolled, only 197 were Catholic.
In response to the court’s decision, many Arkansas public school districts, such as Little Rock, stalled by writing integration plans and filing legal motions, while others proceeded with integration.
In August 1954, Charleston (Franklin County) became the first public school in the former Confederacy to admit black students. Fayetteville followed the next month, while Hoxie (Lawrence County) ended segregation in July 1955. The school closed in August because of white opposition but reopened in October after a federal court barred opponents.
Plans to desegregate schools in North Little Rock, Fort Smith, Ozark (Franklin County) and Van Buren were set for the fall of 1957, along with Central High School in Little Rock.
By September, efforts to prevent the integration of Central High failed, so Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard “to keep peace” as the world’s attention turned to Little Rock.
Outside the school, thousands of protesters turned into an angry mob and troops turned away black students on Sept. 4. The federal court ordered the governor not to interfere. By Sept. 24, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in members of the 101st Airborne Division to assist. On Sept. 25, all nine black students were finally allowed to enter the school. A military presence remained for the rest of the school year.
All Little Rock public schools were closed for the 1958-59 school year and reopened in August 1959 when the federal court declared the closings unconstitutional.
Father Thomas Keller, 74, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Carlisle and Holy Trinity Church in England, was among the crowd when the National Guard escorted the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High on Sept. 25, 1957. He was in his final year at St. John Home Mission Seminary. He said he and other seminarians went because of the historic significance. “We knew it was a very important event because it was the first time (a state) had defied the federal government since the Civil War.”
Church reacts, slowly
The Church in Arkansas was not quick to respond. The first mention of events at Central High appeared in The Guardian, Sept. 20, with a front-page editorial blasting the press for its use of “scare headlines” to escalate the crisis. It went on to state: “Integration is the law, and it is wrong to interfere with its peaceful integration.”
The Providence Visitor, the Diocese of Providence, R.I., newspaper, ran two articles Sept. 12, 1957, from the National Catholic Welfare Conference, now Catholic News Service, run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One article reported that L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, sharply criticized Gov. Faubus for defying a federal court order to integrate schools. The other article said Bishop Fletcher had not issued a statement regarding the crisis. An anonymous Arkansas priest was ...
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