On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. By Friday night, April 5, nine black men in Chicago, ages 16-34, were dead and the city’s west side was on fire. At least four of those men had been killed by police, carrying shotguns loaded with shells packed with extra shot. A Sun-Times reporter suspected the four dead were innocent bystanders, targeted by police who had little regard for black life. While tragic, this type of deadly police violence against black citizens was not uncommon. But it was hardly noticed by white Americans.
The following Monday, however, Chicago’s Mayor Daley said something that white Americans could not ignore. Daley described his now-famous “shoot to kill” order. He said, “I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and I gave him the following instructions, which I thought were instructions on the night of the fifth that were not carried out. I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that [he should issue an order] immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand in Chicago because they're potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple any arsonists and looters--arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.” Daley’s comments provoked an uproar of complaint, especially from the nation’s African Americans. Later, Daley’s press secretary said that the reporters should have printed what Daley meant – that the police needed to protect women and children – not what Daley said. But the damage was done.
Black people were appalled that Daley would so devalue black life. His comments sparked black Catholics to form at least two black power organizations after the riot. Those organizations were the Afro-American Patrolman’s League (AAPL) and the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.
In my post last month, I reviewed Catholics and the American Century, a book that considered how American history narratives would be different if we accounted for Catholics. This month I want to play this idea out in what might, at first glance, seem to be an unexpected way: by pairing Catholics and Black Power. In 1960, the Catholic Church estimated that black Catholics constituted only six percent of Chicago’s black population. Yet their presence mattered tremendously, not only for the Church but also for the city.
At the AHA this year, MatthewCressler gave an outstanding paper exploring Black Power and Catholicism by looking at the AAPL. His paper challenged more traditional ideas that black power was secular, black religion Protestant, and the Catholic Church was white and politically conservative. Cressler pointed out that by late 1960s, a growing group of black Catholics thought that black power could revolutionize the Catholic Church.
In his paper, Cressler argued that the AAPL was deeply influenced by Catholicism. The six officers who initially formed the AAPL met in the basement of Holy Angels Church with Father George Clements, who would soon serve as the chaplain for Chicago’s Black Panthers. Police officer and co-founder Renault Robinson was Catholic as was Ralph Metcalfe, a prominent supporter. Both men hailed from Corpus Christi parish, a thriving black parish on the South Side. Soon after its founding, the AAPL became embroiled in several controversies with the Catholic Church that led them to dye a lagoon black on St. Patrick’s Day (when the city dyes the Chicago River green), participate in a black mass, and protest over the Archdiocese’s appointment of black priests to parishes.
Daley’s comment also sparked the first-ever national meeting of black priests. Father Herman Porter, a black priests from Rockford, IL, invited the nation’s black priests to a special meeting before the regularly scheduled Clergy Conference on the Interracial Apostolate to discuss Daley’s order. (For more on the meeting, see Cyprian Davis’s TheHistory of Black Catholics). The group proclaimed that “"the Catholic Church in the United States, primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely a part of that society.”
Cressler’s paper pointed out that Catholicism engaged with racial justice, particularly through black power, in the years after 1968. In doing so, black Catholics forged a new way of being Catholic, one that they thought was both authentically black and truly Catholic. Their history challenges “common” knowledge, that with the decline of liberal Catholic efforts for integration, Catholics disengaged with race. Cressler’s paper argues otherwise. I, for one, am looking forward to reading more of his work.