One of the Civil Rights Movement’s memorable documents was a letter from Martin Luther King Jr., written from the Birmingham City Jail, in which he voices disappointment with white Christian churches’ efforts on integration.
That 1963 letter, however, commends Spring Hill College, an Alabama Jesuit institution, for integrating its campus.
According to R. Bentley Anderson, S.J., Fordham’s Loyola Chair, the back story bears some attention.
Anderson’s lecture, delivered at Fordham on Feb. 2 and Feb. 23 during Black History Month, recapped the story of Spring Hill’s desegregation by painting a picture of social justice and the Catholic conscience in the South.
“Many reading King’s words would presume that the decision to desegregate Spring Hill was made solely by college officials, but that is not the case,” said Anderson, author of Black, White, and Catholic: New Orleans Interracialism, 1947-1956 (Vanderbilt, 2005).
“Desegregating the small liberal arts college in Mobile was the result of Catholics, lay members and religious, putting into practice theological and philosophical precepts, questioning social conformity . . . dissenting and protesting.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Catholic institutions were steeped in the practices of the Jim Crow South, said Anderson. In 1947, Loyola University New Orleans professor Joseph Fichter, S.J., invited an African-American priest to speak at Loyola. Certain members of the Jesuit community protested Fichter’s suggestion that the priest also have dinner at their table. Warned that such a scenario might create “unpleasantness” and even ungraciousness among certain Jesuits, Father Fichter dropped the invitation.
A row ensued among Jesuits and students who supported Father Fichter and his pro-integration stance and those tradition-bound segregationists, such as Loyola philosophy instructor Martin Burke, S.J. Sam Hill Ray, S.J., Loyola’s director of student counseling, even called for banning interracial Catholic student organizations that had asked Loyola to desegregate its campus and the church to desegregate New Orleans Archdiocesan schools.
“These organizations irritated, antagonized and provoked the Jesuits at Loyola,” said Father Anderson. “[Hill] predicted that these organizations would bring such division in the Christian ranks that the Communists would succeed in making them their tools.”
William Crandell, S.J., the New Orleans provincial, saw the rift damaging the heart and soul of the city’s Jesuit community. He asked John B. Janssens, S.J., the superior general of the Society, to approve a firm, guiding policy on the race issue that would bring greater harmony among its members and, in 1952, the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus passed a resolution formally rejecting racial segregation.
The resolution led to the desegregation of Jesuit-sponsored educational institutions, retreat houses and the province itself, said Anderson, prior to the 1954 decision Brown vs. Board of Education.
“Without Joe Fichter, members of the National Federation of Catholic College Students and the Catholic Committee of the South agitating for racial justice, without the commitment of faculty members at Loyola University and Xavier University to racial equality, and without domestic and international support from the Society of Jesus, Spring Hill College would not have been noted in one of the most important pieces of American literature of the 20th century,” said Anderson.
Anderson added that, today, Jesuits and their colleagues face a new landscape of pressing social and moral issues, some of which resonate as deeply as the struggle for civil rights.
“The question for us today is whether or not we have the leadership, the vision, the character to tackle those issues,” he said.