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  • “The Most Righteous White Man in Selma”:Father Maurice Ouellet and the Struggle for Voting Rights
  • Paul T. Murray (bio)

Selma, alabama, was a destination avoided by civil rights workers in the early 1960s. “The white people were too mean and the black people were too scared” was the excuse given for detouring around the historic cotton-trading town on the banks of the Alabama River. The segregationist White Citizens’ Council dominated the local government. Alabama’s first Council chapter was organized in Selma four months after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; within a year it boasted 1,500 members—one-quarter of Dallas County’s adult white male population. The professionals and businessmen who belonged to the Council used their economic muscle to punish any black resident who dared challenge white supremacy; The working-class whites who Council members ostensibly distinguished themselves from supplied the manpower for Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark’s mounted posse. Thus if business-class whites’ financial pressure failed to silence civil rights advocates, uniformed county deputies and Clark’s deputized working-class whites stood ready to beat down the first hint of agitation for equal rights.1

In early 1965 Selma, Alabama’s streets became the central battleground in the struggle for African American voting rights. The main elements of the Selma story–the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the influx of thousands of out-of-state demonstrators, their triumphal march to the state capitol in [End Page 31] Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act–have been chronicled in numerous accounts. Less well known, however, is the quiet but crucial role played by Father Maurice Ouellet, a white Catholic priest Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “the most righteous white man in Selma.”2

For most of the twentieth century Catholics were a small and disliked minority in Alabama. Except for Birmingham and a few Gulf Coast communities, Catholic believers were few and far between. In 1900 they made up only 2.4 percent of the population in this overwhelmingly Protestant region. The Ku Klux Klan revival of the 1920s targeted Roman “papists” along with Jews and African Americans as the groups most dangerous to public morals and racial integrity. Catholics’ opposition to Prohibition made their morality suspect; their allegiance to the Pope in Rome cast doubt on their patriotism. The sensational 1921 murder of Father James E. Coyle underscored Roman Catholics’ vulnerability. Coyle, a Birmingham priest who officiated at the marriage of a Puerto Rican man rumored to have African ancestry to the daughter of a Methodist minister, was assassinated for the offense to white Protestant sensibilities. The bride’s Klansman father, Reverend E. R. Stephenson, admitted shooting Coyle in front of Saint Paul’s Church, and he was acquitted after offering a tendentious self-defense plea.3

With the exception of Louisiana, where Catholics were a majority of the population, the behavior of southern Catholics during the civil rights era has received limited attention from historians. Mark Newman documents how the desegregation crisis of the 1950s and 1960s played out in Catholic dioceses across the South. Michael Namorato touches on racial issues in his comprehensive history of the [End Page 32] Church in Mississippi, but the most nuanced treatment of this issue is found in The South’s Tolerable Alien, by Andrew S. Moore. His comparison of the relatively enlightened policies of Atlanta Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan and the paternalistic views of Mobile Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen illustrates widely divergent responses of neighboring dioceses. Nevertheless, Moore claims that white Catholics remained isolated from their white Protestant neighbors and often were the targets of religious intolerance until “the high drama of the civil rights movement provided a stage for white Catholics’ acceptance into the southern mainstream.” He concludes that white Catholics generally adhered to the racial norms of the region and eventually gained acceptance into the social and cultural mainstream of the South by making common cause with white Protestants in defense of segregation.4

Southern Catholics seldom appeared in the forefront of the civil rights struggle, but there were notable exceptions. Father Albert S. Foley, a Jesuit sociologist at Mobile...


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