Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become a national hero for racial equality and justice. Since 1986, three years after President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, Americans have celebrated Dr. King’s legacy as a federal holiday, on the third Monday of January.

A survey conducted last year, however, revealed that civil rights in the United States still has a ways to go…. Fewer than half (45%) of all Americans surveyed said they believe the United States  has made substantial progress toward racial equality since 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Roughly half of Americans (49%) said “a lot more” needs to be done to achieve racial equality. Broken down by race, a higher share of blacks (79%) than Hispanics (48%) and whites (44%) felt that way, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Thinking about the civil rights movement (I participated in one of the great Detroit civil rights marches in the 1960s) I started wondering about black American Catholics.

There are today 78.2 million self-identified Roman Catholic Americans and only 3% of them are black. We have 270 active bishops and 184 retired; and among them are 10 active black bishops and 5 retired.

An unprecedented national survey of African American Catholics, conducted from July 7 to August 1, 2011 and sponsored by the National Black Catholic Congress and the University of Notre Dame, revealed that black American Catholics have generally positive feelings about being Catholic but are not completely satisfied with the scope of racial inclusiveness in the American Catholic Church:

About one in four African American Catholics experience racism in their parishes. A total of 31.5 percent say they are uncomfortable because they are the only people of color in their parishes: 25.9 percent saying that other Catholics avoid them because of their race, 23.6 percent say that other parishioners reluctantly shake their hands; and 24.9 percent say they have experienced racial insensitivity toward African Americans from their priests.

African American Catholics, therefore, see much room for race-relations growth in their church. Maybe the next U.S. cardinal should be a black American…..

An historic note: Augustus Tolton (April 1, 1854 – July 9, 1897), was the first Roman Catholic black priest in the United States. A former slave, who was baptized and raised Catholic, Tolton studied formally in Rome and was ordained there in St. John Lateran on Easter Sunday 1886. Assigned to the Diocese of Alton (now the Diocese of Springfield), Tolton first ministered in his home parish in Quincy, Illinois. Later when assigned to Chicago, Fr. Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a black “national parish church” and completed in 1893 on Chicago’s South Side.

In 1990, Adrian Dominican Sister Jamie T. Phelps, from the Catholic Theological Union, launched the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program, in consultation with CTU President Fr. Don Senior, to prepare, educate, and form black Catholic laity for ministerial leadership in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

On the 2nd March 2010 Cardinal George of Chicago announced that he was beginning an official investigation into Tolton’s life and virtues with a view to opening the cause for his canonization. This cause for sainthood is also being promoted by the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, where Tolton first served as priest, as well as the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, where Tolton’s family was enslaved.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George is now two years over the usual retirement age for bishops. Maybe it is time for Francis in Rome to appoint a black cardinal to replace him.


Father Tolton

4 thoughts on “MLK Day Reflections: African American Catholics

    1. Thanks Greg…I was thinking later: what would the world do if the next bishop of Rome were black? And if he were outwardly gay and black?

      Fantasy time……



      John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD

      Geldenaaksebaan 85A

      3001 Heverlee, BELGIUM


  1. Good reflection, Jack!
    May I suggest Archbishop Wilton Gregory for Cardinal? He is not perfect but he has done much for us in the state of Georgia, including being responsible for our own bishop, in the Savannah Diocese, Gregory John Hartmayer. Bob Cushing
    Pastor, St. Joseph’s, Waycross, GA

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