Review: Desegregating Dixie

Matthew J. Cressler

Matthew J. Cressler is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.

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Matthew J. Cressler, "Review: Desegregating Dixie," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Mark Newman. Desegregating Dixie: The Catholic Church in the South and Desegregation, 1945-1992. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. xviii + 455pp. 978-1-4968-1896-6.

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In his preface, Mark Newman quotes an historian who argued that to “present a general account of the [Catholic] church and race in the South, one must examine each and every diocese and archdiocese” (xi). Newman proceeds to do just that. Desegregating Dixie: The Catholic Church in the South and Desegregation, 1945-1992 meticulously documents Catholic responses to desegregation of secular and religious institutions across the postwar U.S. South. The book builds on the scholarship of twentieth-century U.S. religious historians such as Amy Koehlinger, Andrew Moore, R. Bentley Anderson, and James Bennett, who have written focused studies of Catholics and race in specific local settings. But Desegregating Dixie represents “the first overview of the response of Catholics in the South to desegregation during the civil rights movement and its aftermath” (xi). For this reason alone, it will prove an invaluable resource for students and scholars of religion in the U.S. South as well as Catholic historians writ large.

Given the book’s title, readers might assume the book catalogues how the Catholic Church helped dismantle Jim Crow apartheid. Readers are disabused of this misconception quite quickly, however. Newman writes forthrightly of white Catholic racism and segregation, “Most southern white Catholics in the civil rights era, like most other southern whites, were segregationists” (x). The book follows four narrative arcs:  1) The Catholic Church in the South and most white Catholic southerners, like most predominantly white religious institutions and white people, supported segregation in one form or fashion. 2) The Church did not begin to integrate institutions in any substantive sense until the federal government forced compliance and, even then, faced significant resistance from most whites. 3) Catholic institutional support for desegregation was brief, lasting roughly from 1954 until 1971, and largely took the form of closing black Catholic institutions in order to “integrate” white ones. 4) In the end, most white Catholics rejected all but the most token integration efforts and the Church increasingly neglected “racial issues” ever since. Though framed as a contribution to long civil rights movement historiography, the book’s most enduring impact may be in illuminating Catholic contributions to what Elizabeth Gillespie McRae has called “the long segregation movement.”

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically. The introduction concisely summarizes U.S. Catholic slaveholding and segregationist history, blending white and black Catholic history from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the book’s overall chronology, while Chapter 2 presents the sociology of religion as one lens for understanding why a hierarchical institution like the Roman Catholic Church proved incapable of effecting wholesale desegregation. Chapters 3 and 4 offer intellectual histories of white Catholic segregationists and white Catholic progressives, respectively. Chapters 5 through 8 each present a different vantage point on the history of Catholics and desegregation from 1945 to 1970. Chapter 5 focuses on white Catholic responses to secular desegregation; Chapter 6, on the desegregation of Catholic parishes and schools; and Chapter 7, on African American Catholic responses. Chapter 8 sets Catholic southerners in comparison with other denominations as well as with Catholics outside the South. The book concludes with an overview of Catholic desegregation in the South from 1971 to 1992 (Chapter 9), a brief conclusion, and a number of appendices. This overlapping approach, with chapters retreading the same years again and again, feels repetitive at times but it does provide a wealth of resources and will prove invaluable to future research.

Readers must wait until Chapters 7 and 9 for a sustained and robust analysis of African American Catholics and (de)segregation. In practice, “integration” typically meant closing longstanding and much beloved black Catholic institutions that had fostered self-determination and communal pride. White Catholics and Church officials who supported desegregation, few though they were, presumed that African Americans would and should now attend white churches and send their children to white schools, a problem Martin Luther King once called being “integrated out of power.” The result was an exodus out of the Catholic Church. “The early 1970s,” Newman writes, “saw growing disillusionment among southern African American Catholics with diocesan desegregation policies that had produced little desegregation, ignored blacks in the decision-making process, and deprived black communities of valued institutions, leaving their members often feeling unwelcome in formerly white schools and churches” (245). Given that the Church marginalized African American Catholics even in its belated efforts to integrate, black Catholics deserve a more central place in this narrative. Historicizing black Catholic experiences of and struggles against institutional racism remains a crucial area for inquiry.

Despite attempts to balance the perspectives of bishops, priests, sisters, and lay Catholics, Newman devotes the bulk of his attention to ecclesial authorities. He chooses ordained representatives of the institutional Church as central characters, implying that ordinaries (i.e. bishops and archbishops) are more instructive than ordinary Catholics. Over-emphasis on bishops leaves the impression that white Catholics were evenly split on the subject of (de)segregation. Much to the contrary, bishops tended to endorse integration far more frequently than most white Catholics, and even bishops did so reluctantly. “Judged by the pronouncements of some of its prelates,” Newman notes, “the Catholic Church in the South was among the more racially progressive of the region’s predominantly white denominations” (201). But appearances deceived. In practice, most white Catholics supported segregation, much like most white Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. In this way, like Carolyn Renée Dupont’s Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, Newman adds to our understanding of white religious support for segregation and identifies resources for further explorations of the subject.

Desegregating Dixie ends with the pithy remark that “the Catholic Church in the South had desegregated its institutions, but, for the most part, it had not truly integrated them” (275). This serves as a good summary of the book, which reveals Catholics’ reluctant, inconsistent, and unpopular support for desegregation. The book paves the way for even more studies of Catholicism in the U.S. South and is essential reading for understanding Catholics and race in the twentieth-century United States.