Clarion Herald logo Lay persons launched 1961 desegregation drive New Orleans
January 18, 2001

By PETER FINNEY Jr.

In the 40 years since a lay group called the Catholic Council on Human Relations provided the behind-the-scenes impetus for the Archdiocese of New Orleans to desegregate its Catholic schools, the association’s achievements remain largely unknown to those too young to recall the struggle for civil rights or dusty memories to those old enough to have lived through the changes.

But for those who pressed church leaders to live up to Gospel values by providing racial justice for all, the group’s work will never be forgotten.

“Do you know what we went through 40 years ago?” asks Dr. Leonard Burns, an African-American podiatrist who served as vice president of the CCHR. “We’ve made a lot of accomplishments in 40 years, and there’s still a lot to be done.”

The CCHR was founded on March 23, 1961, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Kansas Board of Education decision which declared unconstitutional “separate but equal” – segregated – schools.

Throughout the Deep South and especially in Louisiana, where Plaquemines Parish district attorney Leander Perez advocated for keeping the races separate, legislatures set up legal roadblocks blocking the implementation of the Brown decision.

How the local Catholic church handled the turmoil of desegregation appeared to give hope to those who advocated for racial justice. Archbishop Joseph Rummel had admitted two black students to Notre Dame Seminary in 1948, and he integrated the Holy Name parade in 1949, which he canceled when City Park officials refused to allow the racially mixed event to use its property.

In 1951, Archbishop Rummel directed that all Catholic churches remove the “white” and “colored” signs designating proper seating areas. In 1953, he ordained the archdiocese’s first black priest and issued a pastoral letter directing “no further discrimination in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

But after the 1954 Brown decision, Archbishop Rummel did not immediately act to desegregate Catholic schools. That delay became a source of frustration to the lay leaders who wanted the church to become a leader in social justice.

Members of the CCHR who recall the political and social climate of the time believe Archbishop Rummel, while he dearly believed in the principles of desegregation, was hesitant to act because staunch segregationists wielded such political power that they might stir up too much hatred and violence and cause the desegregation efforts to fail.

Henry Cabirac, the executive director of the CCHR who now lives in Phoenix, said the racial climate in the mid- to late-1950s was so intense that white Catholics who might be known to favor desegregation did so at their own peril.

“Ellis Henican was a very courageous and outstanding attorney who was president of the Catholic Council on Human Relations,” Cabirac recalled. “I can remember us talking about how we wished the archdiocese would do something more to advocate about desegregation. I said something about people taking it out against the church by not contributing.

“Henican told me he had gotten a letter from one of his clients that said if he did not resign as president of the organization (CCHR), he would pull his will from him and pick some other attorney to settle his estate. And he did just that. It cost Henican $50,000, which today might be like a half-million dollars.”

In another pastoral letter in 1956, Archbishop Rummel stated that segregation was morally wrong and sinful. Two years later, the U.S. bishops issued a statement, “Discrimination and the Christian Conscience,” which declared that “the heart of the race question is moral and religious.”

Nothing further happened locally until 1959, when Archbishop Rummel said he would integrate Catholic schools “at the earliest possible moment and definitely no later than when the public schools integrate.” But in August 1960, as the public school system moved toward token desegregation, the archbishop decided not to move forward and instead asked for prayers for the resolution of the race issue.

When Archbishop Rummel was injured in a fall in October 1960, discussion of desegregation was placed on the back burner. Cabirac said the archdiocese was fearful that if it moved ahead, the state Legislature might retaliate by cutting off free text books, bus transportation and lunches to Catholic school students.

But Cabirac said what finally convinced the archdiocese to move were the assurances from former state Rep. Moon Landrieu that the state had too much to fear from an unfavorable decision in the Tidelands offshore oil royalties case to risk alienating the federal government.

“Moon was the only member of the Legislature who voted in favor of integration of the public schools,” Cabirac said. “Everyone told him he’d never be re-elected, but he did it anyway. He gave me information that I think was instrumental in the desegregation of Catholic schools. He didn’t think the state would risk following through on the sanctions it had proposed to use if the Catholic schools had desegregated.”

Burns said the CCHR was founded after Henican met with Msgr. Charles Plauche, archdiocesan chancellor, in order to promote racial justice in the archdiocese. Among the charter members were Dr. Norman Francis, now president of Xavier University, Millard Everett, editor of the Catholic Action of the South, A. Louis Read of WDSU-TV and Francis Doyle of First NBC.

At the first meeting on March 23, 1961, Msgr. Plauche said the CCHR had the approval and blessing of Archbishop Rummel. Among the group’s first actions was to survey Southern dioceses in the area of race relations. It found that the New Orleans Archdiocese was the only one that had yet to integrate its schools, which made school desegregation the top priority.

“They were all motivated by their passion for the church,” said Don Thompson, director of the Immaculate Conception parish pastoral center who did a research paper on the CCHR. “They were motivated by their belief that the public school system integrating before they did was an abomination. They were the tillers who turned the soil. By doing that, they exposed themselves to everyone else who could hurt their business. (Local attorney) Jack Nelson (secretary of CCHR) lived for years with death threats.”

Nelson said the social climate in the 1950s was stifling when racial issues were broached. He recalls being at a meeting of the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Association in which desegregation was discussed.

“I recommended that we bring in a speaker to discuss the legality of civil disobedience,” Nelson said. “The next day after recommending that, I got a call from the club president who said, ‘Jack, we can’t follow through with your recommendation.’ I asked him why not. ‘Because you’ve been dropped from the rolls of the club because you haven’t paid your dues in two years.’ That indicates to you the resistance that was present, especially among the well-to-do and the well-fixed Catholics.”

Burns said he felt Archbishop Rummel delayed because the segregationists were shouting more loudly than others who wanted integration.

“Leander Perez was going crazy,” Burns said. “He and other guys were preaching and getting TV time and doing some awful things to get people on their side. We had no access to anything like that other than walking in the streets or raising a placard. He had the media in his back pocket.”

In October 1961, Archbishop John Cody was assigned to New Orleans as coadjutor bishop with the right to succeed Archbishop Rummel. Archbishop Cody came from St. Louis, which had desegregated its Catholic schools in 1948. On Nov. 29, 1961, the leadership of CCHR met with Archbishop Rummel, who agreed to desegregate Catholic elementary schools in the fall of 1962.

“You have to know Henican,” Cabirac said. “He was really a devout Catholic, and he was loyal to the archbishop. In that time, ecumenism wasn’t in vogue. He told the archbishop, ‘By not desegregating our schools right now, we’ll look worse than the Protestants! We’re not maintaining our integrity.’ He could get away with it.”

The decision to desegregate was announced on March 27, 1962.

“We were overjoyed, and I can still remember clapping and jumping for joy,” Burns said. Priests in attendance at the meeting gave Archbishop Rummel a standing ovation.

When Perez and two others refused to stop asking Catholics in the pews to protest the decision, Archbishop Rummel excommunicated them.

When school opened in the fall, things went smoothly.

“We felt that every little bit of work we had done helped make things go smoothly and without any hindrance,” Burns said. “We went to several of the schools and checked them out. After that successful day, I went to bed late and slept like a log.”

Burns said the strides made in racial justice since then are palpable.

“At one time we were fearful of going to several churches,” Burns said. “Now we don’t have that reluctance. The attitude of the people is totally different. They’re friendly. They smile at you. We talk in a friendly manner like it’s a common thing, like we don’t even talk about that any more. I don’t know if they consider me black or white or green.”

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