Historian and Teacher

New Project

Catholic Liberalism and Race in the American City



This project explores the activities of Catholic liberals who worked against racism in several urban U.S. settings  – notably Chicago, Boston and New York. In particular it traces the activism of organizations like the Catholic Interracial Council and Friendship House which worked against the conservatism of the U.S. Catholic Church through the middle decades of the 20th Century when it came to issues of racial discrimination. These organizations advocated a sort of Christian humanism that saw racism against black Americans as a violation of the Mystical Body of Christ. From the perspective of many leaders of these organizations, Jesus Christ was literally embodied in the whole population regardless of its background or origins

My research also looks at discussions that occurred between Catholic liberals and liberal activists from other faith communities through Vatican II and in the lead up to the National Conference on Religion and Race in 1963 – which took place in Chicago just prior to the Birmingham campaigns of the main national civil rights movements led by groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A question I would like to ask for this portion of the project is how far back can ecumenical liberalism be traced?

This research is part of a larger new project that seeks to better understand how we can think about Catholic liberalism, as well as the intersections of race and popular religion through the mid-20th Century in light of the new scholarship produced about anti-racist movements and racial politics in urban America. This research engages new studies about regional manifestations of white racism which took on forms that went beyond the white/black binary so often featured by considerations of the Jim Crow South and American race relations generally. It suggests that a consideration of the ambiguities of Catholic liberalism is a helpful, critical rubric and starting point to consider the complexities of religiously-inspired activist interventions in the U.S. public sphere through the mid-20th Century. Indeed, it is a conclusion of my early research findings that some Catholic liberals simply did not go far enough towards opposing the sorts of violent racisms and exclusions many white ethnic communities afflicted on non-white migrants who moved into American cities over this same period.

Audio of paper given on the “New Histories of Anti-racist Activism in Chicago” panel at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, Sacramento, California (April 12-14, 2018).