The Catholic Church in Arkansas and Desegregation, 1946-1988

By Newman, Mark | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church in Arkansas and Desegregation, 1946-1988


Newman, Mark, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


SMALL IN NUMBER, CATHOLICS IN ARKANSAS had for decades before the civil rights movement faced suspicion and even hostility from elements of the Protestant majority.1 Unwilling to aggravate that hostility by challenging segregation, Arkansas's Catholic bishops accepted Jim Crow and practiced it, maintaining separate schools and churches for African Americans and whites. In the civil rights era, however, the national Catholic hierarchy condemned racial discrimination, even as many southern states engaged in massive resistance to desegregation mandated by the federal government. Under the leadership of Bishop Albert L. Fletcher and his successor, Andrew J. McDonald, the Catholic Church in Arkansas thus grappled with the issue of desegregation and the conflicting demands made upon it by black and white Catholics, the teachings of the Catholic hierarchy, and the segregationist sentiment of most white Arkansans.

Like many other Catholic bishops in the peripheral South during the 1950s, Fletcher called for desegregation of Catholic institutions but adopted a gradualist approach, not moving toward more than tokenism until the mid-1960s. Although the Catholic Church was a hierarchical institution, in practice its southern bishops often proved reluctant to impose, and some even reluctant to advocate, desegregation because of opposition from many white Catholics as well as the white Protestant majority. Even in heavily Catholic southern Louisiana, Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel of New Orleans, an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow in the late 1940s and 1950s, repeatedly postponed Catholic school desegregation until 1962, due to the opposition of many priests and much of the white laity. Like the Southern Baptists, Southern Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, the Catholic Church thus experienced tension during the civil rights era between its mostly segregationist southern white laity and many of its leaders, nearly all of whom, albeit with varying degrees of speed, enthusiasm, and forcefulness, eventually positioned themselves against enforced segregation in religious and secular institutions.2

A cautious conservative and a strong believer in education, Bishop Fletcher had long viewed separate African-American Catholic churches and missions and black Catholic schools, which in Arkansas were overwhelmingly attended by non-Catholics, as crucial to Catholicizing the black population. But Fletcher was also committed to law and order and democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s, these commitments increasingly conflicted with the maintenance of segregation and encouraged him gradually to relinquish it within Arkansas's Catholic institutions. The Supreme Court's Brown decision in May 1954 put moral pressure on Fletcher to desegregate, as did the U.S. Catholic hierarchy's condemnation of segregation in 1958. Moreover, Gov. Orval Faubus's use of the National Guard to block desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957 and the efforts of white mobs to thwart the school's integration threatened the education and law and order Fletcher cherished. Yet even in the 1960s, as some black and white Arkansas Catholics pressed for the more complete integration of Catholic institutions, Fletcher faced pressure from many black Catholics to maintain African-American Catholic schools and churches as essential community institutions that met religious, educational, and social needs. Ultimately, though, financial pressures and a dwindling supply of nuns and priests for Catholic schools and churches as much as anything made the maintenance of segregated Catholic institutions impractical, whatever the black or white laity might desire.

The Diocese of Little Rock covered the entire state. There were 36,943 Arkansas Catholics in 1950, representing 1.9 percent of the state's population. By 1966, the Catholic population had climbed to 50,983, or 2.6 percent, a proportion that held steady through the 1980s. Arkansas's AfricanAmerican Catholics numbered at least 917 in 1950, 1,220 in 1960, and 1,117 in 1975. …

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