In January of 1963 a conference was convened to address social issues in America. It had been one hundred years since Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation yet racism was still prevalent all over America and discrimination was present in employment and housing opportunities. It was a different time, one in which real estate professionals were not required to take classes on ethics or fair housing and were even allowed to put clauses in contracts prohibiting the sale of property to members of a racial minority. Hiring practices were just as discriminate. Across the nation, it was accepted that certain groups were to be denied opportunities and resources based on the color of their skin. The 1960’s was an era of transformation in America for which the Catholic Church served as a catalyst. This relationship is demonstrated in the Catholic Church’s presence and support at the National Conference on Religion and Race.
The National Conference on Religion and Race was held in Chicago, Illinois at the Edgewater Beach Hotel from January 14 through 17, 1963. It was convened by the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the Social Action Commission of the Synagogue Council of American, and the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. It was a historic event that brought together religious leaders from different faiths such as Protestants, Catholics, and Jewish.
Over 70 delegates from participating organizations joined attended the conference to evaluate the role of religious institutions in race relations, determine the appropriate course of action, then implement a plan to address discrimination in a positive and effective way. The Conference lasted for three days. At the end of those three days, all delegates present contributed to and unanimously supported the adoption of An Appeal to the Conscience of the American People.
“An Appeal to the Conscience of the American People” is an aptly named statement created by the leaders of the faiths held by a majority of Americans for the purpose of imploring the American people to search for a justice in which law protects everyone and opportunities are equal. The Appeal calls for people to support the ideals put forth through their prayers and beliefs, but also through their actions are they asked to “act courageously in the cause of human equality and dignity while there is still time.”
One of the initiators of the Conference of Religion and Race and one of the most active members at the conference (also the reason why the conference was held in Chicago) was Albert Meyer, elected Archbishop of the archdiocese of Chicago. Meyers’s upbringing and education had taught him the importance of having a unified religious effort against racial discrimination and segregation.
He was born in March of 1903 in Milwaukee from immigrant parents Mathilda Thelen and Peter James Meyer. He started his studies at St. Mary’s parochial school in Milwaukee, of the School Sisters of Notre dame, which was also where his sister had attended and joined sisterhood. He later joined the Jesuit Marquette Academy. In 1917 he joined a Saint Francis seminary and was later sent to Rome to further his studies and where he studied pontifical Urbanian Athenaeum “De Propaganda Fide” where he obtained a doctorate in theology. In 1927 he studies at the pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and obtained a licentiate in Holy Scriptures and a certificate in Candidatus Ad Laurem in 1928.
His major contribution to the cause of social justice began after he was ordained priest on July 11, 1926 by the church of S. Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, he returned in Milwaukee in 1927 where he held his first mass at the School Sisters of Notre Dame, also his first school. He joined the Waukesha Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1930-1931 and he became a faculty member of Saint Francis Seminary from 1931-1937. He was elected Bishop of Superior in February 18, 1946. During this time he issued the “Programs of Instructions”, in which tries to teach priest of the dioceses how to make the sermon an important part of their missions. He was trusted with the Archdiocese of Chicago in September 19, 1958. He was made archbishop priest in the consistory in December 14, 1959. He received his title and red hat in December 19, 1959. He attended the first three sessions of the Second Vatican council in 1962-1964. Archbishop Meyer was a member of the board of presidency during 1963-1964. He also participated in the conclave of 1963 that elected Pope Pious VI. He also was one of the initiators of the idea of having a gathering in Chicago of all the religious leaders, which resulted in the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race. His participation was very impressive with many calls to religious involvement in improving social and living conditions.
What this cause needed was more organization and as a result Archbishop Meyer saw that involving more than just Catholics in the movement would help them in their cause. Though Archbishop Meyer proposed a conference in the city of Chicago it is important to notice that activism with Civil Rights and calls to social justice were taking place in various parts of the country. The Catholic Church began its involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Their involvement was due to the principles of Rerum Novarum. During its establishment in 1891 it was only benefiting European immigrants seeking better working conditions, greater employment opportunities, and social justice. These causes are exactly the same causes for which the Civil Rights movement was started. The Catholic Church was at first hesitant to take part in the movement but as Rerum Novarum stated it is supposed to fight against all forms of social injustice. Racial prejudice and segregation during the 1960’s was the main force driving protests and demands for equal rights for all the people of the United States. The notion of Rerum Novarum calls for equal benefits towards all the people of the Catholic Church as well as everyone outside the Catholic Church.
One of the first members of the Catholic Church to take part in the Civil Rights movement was Father James Groppi. He engages in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s advocating fair housing and calling to an end to segregation. In 1965 Groppi helped Black Catholics through peaceful protests in the city of Milwaukee. He demanded that the government of the state of Wisconsin overturn a legal document that forbade the sale of a home to black people.
Another member of the Catholic Church Father George Clements is ordained a priest and immediately gets involved with the Civil Rights movement. He was involved with the “Black Power” movement in Washington. His involvement was an effort to end discrimination against blacks for just simply being black. He calls to the Catholic Church to do the same and take part in the movement. Clements even criticizes the Catholic Church for being a white supremacist institution that had become too comfortable in its wealth and had forgotten about its commitment to the poor and oppressed.
There is no dispute that the historical circumstances under which “The Appeal to the Conscience of the American People” was produced were chaotic enough to warrant the creation of such a document. The events taking place in America at this time were unjust and socially inequitable. The Catholic Church’s support, embodied in the actions and efforts of Archbishop Albert Gregory Meyer and driven by the principles put forth in Rerum Novarum, was essential to the success of the Chicago Conference on Race and Religion. This historical meeting brought together leaders from the major faiths and led to the production of The Appeal to the Conscience of the American People. This became the instrument through which religion fought against social inequalities. This became the medium through which leaders earnestly asked followers to join them in the affirmation of their commitment to human dignity and human rights. This became the legacy of religion’s role in race relations and the Catholic Church’s fight for social justice.
Mathew Ahmann, RACE: Challenge to Religion (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963).