Catholic and Quaker Interracial Activists

Karen Johnson

There's a fantastic body of literature on race and religion in American history for which many of our blog contributors are responsible.  While Americans' faith has both reinforced and torn down racial hierarchies, when historians search for white heroes regarding race, we often cite the Quakers, especially their earlier opposition to slavery.  But little has been written on Quaker efforts for civil rights in the 20th century.  Allan Austin's Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950 fills that void.  Austin traces Quaker-led American Friends Service Committee's various efforts to promote greater equality in the United States.  As I was reading, I became fascinated with the comparisons and contrasts between the AFSC's activism and that of the Catholic interracial activists I study.  I've written more on that below, but first, a brief summary of the history of Quaker-led activism.

The story of the AFSC's interracial activism is one of expanding strategies.  When they started their race work in the 1920s, they emphasized what would be a consistent theme through the 1950s: promoting individual interactions between people of different races in order to break down (white) prejudice.  In the 1930s, activists engaged with social scientists in a formal Institute of Race Relations.  They broadened their conceptualization of America's race problem from a belief that it was an individual problem to emphasizing some of the more systemic issues feeding inequality like economics.  During the Second World War, in the name of wartime unity, activists pared back their economic critique and expanded their efforts from Negro-white relations to include immigrant- and Japanese-American- white relations.  They used hostels as a way to ease immigrants' and displaced Japanese and Japanese-Americans' transition to new locations, and to promote assimilation.  In the post-war period, the AFSC adopted what they called an "oblique" approach to racial inequality, which meant they tried to downplay race prejudice and instead help level the playing field in housing and job opportunities. 

Although their strategies expanded, a few constants shaped the activist's interracial activism.  First, they maintained belief that people could change through individual contact, and so they tried to reconcile people and make America's society more equal quietly, and often behind the scenes.  Second, they developed their beliefs based on what worked for them at the time and made pragmatism a priority.  Third, they continuously increased the number of non-Quakers in leadership positions.  Finally, they faced conflict – often based in what Allan calls "latent racism" – within their ranks.

Both Quaker interracialists and Catholic interracialists were minorities within their religious traditions.  Catholics may have the more notorious reputation when it comes to their resistance to racial integration, with one of the more profound instances being protests against Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago in 1966 when he marched through heavily Catholic neighborhoods to promote integration.  But Quaker interracial activists, too, faced resistance from their co-religionists, particularly on the issue of integrating Quaker-led schools.  Why was the Catholic response more outwardly violent than the Quaker response?  Perhaps because of the strong Catholic theology of place that manifested in their emphasis on parish boundaries.

Quakers and Catholics working for racial change both started with the individual, but also focused on changing society.  Especially in the 1930s, when Marxist critiques of American society dovetailed with the Depression to make some Americans question the value of capitalism, both Quakers and Catholics wanted to reshape the structures of American society.  But Quakers moved from their focus on the individual to their focus on society because of their interaction with social science, while Catholics drew their inspiration to transform society from their theology.  Catholics undoubtedly drank from the wells the social sciences, especiallysociology, but their practice of Catholic Action, the idea that a Catholic ought to see a situation, judge what to do, and then act shaped their activism.  Catholics intended to transform the world for Christ, to make it, as Dorothy Day said, a place where it was easier to be good.

Quakers and Catholics also differed in their emphases on action and thought.  For Quakers, Austin shows, action led to philosophy.  Catholic activists in the 1930s and 1940s read widely, especially from the books that Sheed & Ward published, and spent hours talking about theology and philosophy, especially as it related to activism.  In conversion after conversion I have read regarding white Catholics' shift to racial justice, their action followed a philosophical "conversion." While some Catholic philosophies changed after their action, it was often towards a more radical stance as they moved deeper into interracial activism.

Finally, both Quakers and Catholics struggled with the power dynamics of interracial relationships in which white folks often tried to maintain the upper hand, sometimes unconsciously.  Austin points to the latent racism of one activist organization in the 1950s that limited African Americans to secretarial jobs or executive positions in the AFSC on projects only relating to race.  Catholics working interracially grappled too, with assumptions white Catholics made about their role in relation to black Catholics.  White Catholics often talked about helping "the Negro" while black Catholics called their white brethren to work with, not for, African Americans.  These conflicts may be something universal to interracial activism.  I am reminded of Ed's and Paul's description of abolitionist renderings of Jesus in The Color of Christ.  They write that Jesus was "never rendered visually as a black man.  He could be symbolically a slave and he rhetorically could be called colored, but when created in an embodied form, he had white skin, brown eyes, long hair, and a straight beard" (119).

Stay posted.  Next month I'll go more in depth with Allan Austin about Quaker interracial activism in an interview.


Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks so much for this post, Karen. I had recently noted Austin's book -- sounds like I need to move it to the top of my list! Looking forward to the interview.

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