The Word from Lansing: Black History Month and the Need for Continued Dialogue

Throughout its history, the United States has become a home to people of varying cultures, backgrounds, and races. The nation is a place of opportunity. But a variety of barriers, including racial discrimination, have made it more difficult for those opportunities to become reality. During Black History Month, we have the chance to reflect upon issues of race and diversity and to recognize the many contributions African-Americans have made to the Church and to society.

Over the centuries, many inspiring black saints have illuminated what it means to be a person of faith. These include St. Monica, a wife and mother known for her dedication to prayer; her son St. Augustine, a doctor of the Church; St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican who cared for the sick and the poor; and St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave and patron saint of trafficked persons.

Here in the United States, the rich culture and experiences diversity brings is beneficial to the community and the Church. For example, the Knights of Peter Claver (KPC) is the largest African American Catholic organization in the United States. Named after a saint who ministered to slaves in the Americas, the organization provides men of color opportunities to be active in their faith, helping at-risk youth and promoting social justice. The KPC Ladies Auxiliary offers similar opportunities for women. In education, St. Katharine Drexel created Xavier University of New Orleans as the first U.S. Catholic institution of higher education for African Americans in 1925. Additionally, the National Black Catholic Congress formed to help African Americans participate in the Church and in society. Each of these organizations has helped to encourage black Americans to embrace and use their gifts.

The struggle in the United States for racial equality gained momentum in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This struggle was one of the critical issues that drove Michigan Catholic Conference’s (MCC) advocacy agenda in the 1960s, shortly after the organization’s formation. The first public statement from MCC’s Board of Directors, in fact, called for civil rights for all races and the active cooperation between all religious groups—prior to the passage of the National Civil Rights Act in 1964.

A year after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Catholic priests and religious sisters walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in his freedom march to Selma, which drew attention to the need for voting rights of black Americans. Through its public advocacy, the Conference opposed segregation in schools, unfair loan practices, and race-based criteria for home sales. MCC then turned its attention to ensuring civil rights through the provision of direct services to those in need and the promotion of policies in education, social services, and social action.

More recently, in 2006, MCC joined a broad coalition opposed to a ballot proposal that sought to ban affirmative action policies in Michigan. While this measure was ultimately approved by voters and upheld by the Supreme Court, staff spoke of affirmative action as one important tool that could be used toward ensuring diversity in the workplace as well as the classroom.

America has made important progress as it addresses racial discrimination and promotes tolerance. Unfortunately, in recent years and in some places, racial tensions have continued and have seemingly grown.

During Black History Month, let us remember the contributions of those who have come before us. Let us take responsibility to address the reality of injustice. And let us promote peace and dialogue as a way to break down racial stereotypes and contribute towards a culture of solidarity. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”