The Hottest Places in Hell: The Catholic Church and Civil Rights

Hite, Gregory Nelson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Fogarty, Gerald, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the role that Catholics played in the Selma Voting Rights movement between 1962-1965, at both the local and the national level. It assesses the reciprocal impact the Catholic Church and the civil rights movement had upon each other. The goal of this dissertation is to integrate Catholics into the historical narrative of the Selma campaign in particular and the civil rights movement in general. The work traces the history of the Catholic Interracial movement in the United States from its beginnings in the late 1920s through to the rise of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ) in the early 1960s. The work also explores the growth of the St. Elizabeth's mission in Selma, Alabama 1937-1960. My aim is to explore how a single religious community brings various physical, economic, political and theological resources, at both the local and national level, to bear upon a grassroots protest movement, and to expand our understanding of the full range of resources the African American community was able to draw upon in the struggle for civil rights. The Selma mission provides a safe haven for the nascent voting rights movement. On March 7, 1965, state troopers brutally assaulted unarmed peaceful protesters and national media was attention riveted upon the city. In answer to a call by Martin Luther King, hundreds of men and women descended upon the city to witness for justice. The NCCIJ mobilized a large Catholic presence to travel to the city and participate in the demonstrations, signaling that the Church was prepared to take its place among the mainstream denominations as an equal partner in the struggle for social justice, and providing the movement with a fresh symbol of Christian witness. This dissertation assesses the impact the movement had on the church as it struggled to reappraise its place in a changing America, and the means by which the Black Freedom struggle was able to integrate itself into the American mainstream. How and with what effect these two movements converge at Selma shaped the very nature of the Church and the nation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Catholic Church, voting, race, civil rights
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