(An entry in celebration of Black History Month)
From Time Magazine, 13 April 1962:
"God demands segregation," says New Orleans' Mrs. B. J. Gaillot Jr., president of segregationist Save Our Nation Inc. She is a Roman Catholic, and when Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, 85 [1876-1964], ordered full desegregation of New Orleans parochial schools for next fall, Mrs. Gaillot responded with picketing and loud protest. She was not alone. Leander Perez, influential political boss of Plaquemines Parish and also a Catholic, suggested reprisals against the clergy: "Cut off their water. Quit giving them money to feed their fat bellies." And State Representative Rodney Buras of New Orleans proclaimed that he would fight Arch, bishop Rummel's demand for desegregation "even to the extreme of being excommunicated."Last week the archbishop answered some of his loudest parishioners with firm letters of "paternal admonition." The letter to Mrs. Gaillot, mother of two children in Catholic schools, was a "fatherly warning'' of automatic excommunication if she continued promoting "flagrant disobedience to the decision to open our schools to ALL." Said she nervously: "If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong, I will get down on my knees before Archbishop Rummel and beg his forgiveness." Postponing that experience, the archbishop spent two hours conferring with State Lawmaker Buras, recipient of another Rummel letter, who emerged saying that he still opposed all integration. "However," he added, "as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I must abide by its laws and decisions."Parochial schools enroll half the white pupils in New Orleans. After Rummel's order, segregationist Catholics considered transferring their children to public schools. But in a landmark decision last week, New Orleans' Federal District Judge J. Skelly Wright took a severe look at New Orleans' public schools, which still have admitted only twelve Negroes to six previously all-white schools. Judge Wright agreed with 102 Negro petitioners that the city school board is hardly desegregating "with all deliberate speed." Wright forbade the board from further use of the Louisiana pupil-placement law, and ordered desegregation of the first six grades in all New Orleans public schools next fall. As a result. New Orleans faces the biggest wholesale school integration yet attempted in any major Southern city.
In an article published on the website of the Catholic Education Resource Center, Tim Townsend provides us with some of the historical background concerning Archbishop Rummel's courageous moral stance:
In the wake of the United States Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Joseph Francis Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans, began planning the integration of the archdiocese's schools. It would take eight years, several court battles and the excommunication of three prominent Catholic political figures for Rummel to achieve his goal.As Americans debate the public and private responsibilities of Catholic politicians in this election year, the story of Archbishop Rummel's decision to use the serious punishment of excommunication with members of his flock is returning to the national conscience. This time, the story is being wielded by conservative Catholic groups that would like to portray Burke's stance on politicians, Communion and abortion as the moral equivalent of Rummel's stand against racism.
Rummel was concerned about racial integration even beforeBrown v. Board of Education was handed down. In 1953, a year before Brown, he wrote a pastoral letter called "Blessed Are the Peacemakers" that ended segregation in archdiocesan parishes.
In another pastoral letter in February of 1956, he wrote that "compulsory racial segregation is morally wrong and sinful," according to Dr. Charles E. Nolan, the archdiocese archivist. The following month, lawyer and segregationist Emile Wagner founded the Association of Catholic Laymen in response to Rummel's statements about integrating New Orleans schools. Wagner called integration "an unproven principle and the plot of communists," according to New Orleans archdiocese archives.
Rummel responded by calling the group "unnecessary" and "scandalous" and in an April letter to the group's 30 board members, threatened each with excommunication. In May, Wagner and his group backed down and disbanded, but later sent a letter to Pope Pius XII, appealing their ability to organize without threat of excommunication.
As the 1950s wore on, and much of the South ignored Brown, Rummel gradually began planning the integration of New Orleans Catholic schools.
"Archbishop Rummel knew what he was up against in New Orleans politics, and he knew he had to lay the groundwork slowly," said the Rev. William F. Maestri, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
In 1960, legislators in Baton Rouge sent letters to the archbishop threatening the withdrawal of aid to, and tax-exempt status of, New Orleans Catholic schools should Rummel persist in his attempts to integrate them.
In March of 1962, Rummel announced a plan to integrate all Catholic schools in New Orleans the following school year, but he again met with strong resistance from segregationist Catholics. Judge Leander Perez, president of the Plaquemines parish, was one such Catholic. (Louisiana is divided into parishes rather than counties.)
"Perez was like the Richard Daley of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes," said Maestri. "He was an old-style political boss."
At a public rally the day after Rummel's announcement, Perez told an audience that no matter what the archbishop said, Catholic schools in Plaquemines would not integrate. He urged them to pull their children from parochial schools, and withhold contributions to the archdiocese.
After several more public, heated exchanges with Perez, Rummel again sent letters to dissenting Catholic segregationists, in which he said they "promoted flagrant disobedience," and that unless they backed down, they would be excommunicated. Many again relented, but Perez and two others did not. Rummel waited two weeks, and when he didn't hear from the final three, he publicly excommunicated them for their "flagrant disregard" for his "fatherly council."
Maestri said Rummel's actions were not political, but moral. "For him this was a fundamental moral issue," he said. "He was clearly motivated by one thing: to do what was just and right."