A look back at Catholic involvement in Selma civil rights protests

On Presidents Day, I covered a screening of a documentary about a group of Catholic nuns who participated in one of the 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., and I decided to go through our archives to see how we covered that historic period in U.S. history.

During the month of March and throughout the remainder of 1965, the precursor to Catholic News Service posted numerous stories about Catholic involvement in the marches and the civil rights movement in general.

In one story, it was reported that a priest from San Antonio who trudged the entire route of the 50-mile, Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march said he did so to protest the “inhumanity of the past 100 years.”

In another story, priests from Alabama said they encouraged their “negro” parishioners to participate in what would later be known as the “Bloody Sunday” march, where policemen who were ordered to break up the civil rights protest beat participants with clubs, whips and ropes, causing countless injuries and at least one death.

“I can state unquestionably that we priests felt very badly, because we could not take part in the march, but we abide by the decision of the authorities in this diocese that priests are not to join in street demonstrations,” Edmundite Father Maurice Ouellet, pastor of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Selma, is quoted as saying the day after that March 7 event. “We did what we could, but we’d like to do more.”

In yet another story, it was reported that more than 600 priests, nuns, Protestant ministers and rabbis continued to pour into Selma in a series of protests that March.

It was reported that by March 15, 44 U.S. Catholic dioceses had sent representatives to Selma, including then Bishop-designate James P. Shannon of St. Paul, Minn.

When leading a group of protesters and clergy, Holy Cross Father John Cavanaugh — a former president of University of Notre Dame — was stopped by a Selma public safety officer, who said he couldn’t believe that men of God would march without a permit.

“We may talk cross while excited, but we ask you pray for us, that you may see our cause,” Father Cavanaugh reportedly told the officer. “We don’t look for violence. We believe in justice for all. We ask the blessings of God, of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost on all of you.”

The pages of yellowing paper in the CNS files are too numerous to copy down for you to read, but the stories are rich with history.

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