It's New Orleans, 1962 and Mrs. B. J. Gaillot Jr. is mad. She's mad because Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel ordered full desegregation of New Orleans parochial schools. President of Save Our Nation Inc., a segregationist group, and a mother of two, Mrs. Gaillot was not alone.
Leander Perez, an "influential political boss" in Plaquemines Parish advocated withholding donations from churches and Rodney Buras, State Representative, vowed to fight Archbishop Rummel's order "even to the extreme of being excommunicated." Buras later met with Rummel and, while he still supported segregation, acknowledged, "as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I must abide by its laws and decisions."
Rummel's fight for desegregation of schools went back to 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education, when he wrote a letter titled "Blessed Are the Peacemakers", ending segregation in archdiocessan parishes. Calling compulsory racial segregation "morally wrong and sinful", and battling groups like the Association of Catholic Laymen, Rummel did not back down.
He did not back down in 1960 when lawmakers in Baton Rouge threatened to withdraw aid to and the tax-exempt status from New Orleans Catholic schools if Rummel continued his push for integration. When Leander Perez threatened not only to cease financial support, but remove children from Catholic schools, Rummel did not back down. He wrote pastoral letters, calling out the segregationists for "promot[ing] flagrant disobedience", and threatened excommunication.
When Perez and two other politicians did not change their views, Rummel issued a public excommunication for the three. Rev. William f. Maestry, spokesman for the archdiocese of New Orleans said Rummel's actions were "not political, but moral."
Such drastic measures dates back to 1947, when St. Louis archbishop Cardinal Joseph Elmer Ritter, issued similar orders integrating St. Lousi Catholic schools; he threatened dissenting Catholics, who were organizing a legal battle against the order, with excommunication.
Catholic efforts in the struggle for civil rights are borne of the belief that all men are created in the image and likeness of God, thus endowing them with not only those "unalienable rights" of liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness, but also with dignity, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.
Today we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. A Baptist minister, King did separate his faith from his fight for racial equality.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that the impetus driving Catholics like Rummel and figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, King made no effort to cover up his belief that civil rights were a matter of equality for "all of God's children." King called on others to "rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force" and his was a vision of a world where "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:4-5).
And, the noble lessons of racial equality aside, key belief of Martin Luther King, Jr. and men like Archbishop Rummel is this: acts, no matter if they are deemed the law, that stand in contradiction to the Word and teachings of God are to be disobeyed. Both flagrantly broke the law; King spent time in jail and Rummel faced financial threats from political figures.
Yet they were not deterred from fighting for what they believed to be a non-negotiable issue of genuine social justice. They said to laws, and the men who made them, "This is an unjust law and we will not abide by it." This is, and must be, their ultimate legacy.