The Selma effect: Catholic nuns and social justice 50 years on

by Carol K. Coburn


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When six Catholic nuns from St. Louis boarded a chartered plane headed for Selma, Alabama, in the early morning hours of March 10, 1965, they had no idea they were about to change their own destinies and the lives of many American women religious. Traveling with 48 other men and women from a variety of faith traditions, the sisters were scheduled to join hundreds of demonstrators in a voting rights’ march scheduled for later that morning in Selma. Clothed in their floor-length, traditional habits of black serge wool and veils, the nuns were swarmed by the media and their photographs and subsequent interviews filled the front pages of many national newspapers, providing the lead story for national television networks over the next few days.

In reality, the sisters and those they marched with walked only about a block that day before they were stopped by Alabama troopers and a sheriff’s posse; but that short walk helped propel American Catholic sisters into a new era that forever changed the face of religious life and would inevitably redefine how sisters understood and acted upon social justice issues for the rest of the century.

After Selma and over the next 50 years, many Catholic sisters moved away from their historic contributions of creating and staffing educational, healthcare and social service institutions and gravitated to a variety of social justice issues and activities. Individuals, their religious communities, and the creation of many intercommunity networks and organizations helped reshape and redefine the response to social justice in late 20th-century America.

Although many women left religious life in the decades after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, those who stayed restructured and redefined their communities, their individual commitments and work roles, and contributed greatly to the late 20th-century critique of the underlying systemic discrimination present in American society that continues to perpetuate race, class, ethnic and gender inequalities. Working in groups with each other, as well as lay Catholics and non-Catholics, they participated in anti-war and peace movements, political lobbying organizations, anti-death penalty groups, corporate investment watchdog organizations, rural and urban education programs, healthcare and disability and poverty programs, among others. And more recently, Catholic sisters have moved to help “re-vision” the future, bringing issues of globalization, environmental responsibility and cosmology under the burgeoning umbrella of social justice and global transformation in the 21st century.

As historical transitions go, Catholic sisters transformed and redefined themselves with the speed of light. The change for U.S. Catholic women in religious life between 1960 and the mid-1980s cannot be overstated. It was an historical, theological, sociological and psychological transition of epic proportions – personally, professionally and spiritually.

Nuns before Selma

Since coming to New Orleans in 1727, Catholic nuns have played an important role in public caregiver roles as educators, nurses and social workers through individual sacrifice and institution building of mammoth proportions. Bringing their skills from Europe or creating new communities in the United States, religious orders of women played an important public role in a fast-growing country, full of immigrants who desperately needed public and private assistance to educate and assimilate their children in a sometimes hostile environment of religious and ethnic bigotry and poverty. As single women who lived in community and espoused vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Catholic sisters moved about the nation meeting the needs of their fast-growing church and individuals, Catholic and non-Catholic.

However, helping others in need meant just that – with little questioning of the systemic inequities of society and the institutions that supported this discrimination. It was a significant contribution, honorable and highly effective in its result, but its motives and objectives rarely went beyond massive philanthropy or charity. Limited as members of a minority religion composed of mostly working-class immigrants and by “convent manners” that emphasized humility, obedience, selflessness and public silence, nuns demonstrated their influence but rarely gave voice to it. Regardless of how the nuns may have felt personally, or as a community, they rarely used their public voice to challenge the status quo. Systemic inequalities persisted, and American social institutions remained intact with all their imperfections.

Underpinnings for change

The Selma events of 1965 were seminal in the move to social activism for American Catholic sisters, but several factors coalesced in the decades before and after World War II, laying the groundwork and providing the impetus for expanding activities in the social justice arena. Although it is impossible to create a linear path toward this transformation, the education, work and lives of Catholic nuns had already begun to change.

By mid-century, orders of women religious had begun a subtle but active transition, moving them slowly into social awareness and action. Higher education played a major role in that transition. For decades, religious orders of women had created and staffed hundreds of Catholic women’s colleges in the United States. Barred, except in summers and on weekends, from Catholic colleges for men, sisters had to seek higher education in secular institutions, particularly graduate schools.

Since the early 20th century, women religious, who were needed as faculty at Catholic women’s colleges, had begun acquiring graduate degrees at many large, state universities as well as high-profile graduate schools such as Stanford, University of Chicago, Harvard and Columbia. Thrust into a world of academic competition, research and critical thinking, sisters excelled in the humanities and sciences but also in the newer academic disciplines of the social sciences, particularly sociology and psychology, which were needed to prepare teachers, nurses and social workers – the gender-appropriate professions prominent at women’s colleges in the early to mid-20th century.  

By mid-century, Catholic nuns were some of the best-educated women in the United States, functioning as presidents and CEOs of colleges, large urban hospitals and numerous social service agencies. Between 1960 and 1990, more than 1,600 Catholic sisters earned doctoral degrees. Paradoxically, they were also some of the least educated, particularly those in parish schools who were forced into classrooms, often times with 40 to 50 students, without proper training. It was in this climate of exploitation and lack of professional education that a group of nuns from Catholic women’s colleges attempted to remediate the unprofessional conditions facing sisters in teaching, nursing and social welfare work. Focusing on integrating the goals of higher education, professional expertise and religious life, a group of sister-professors from a variety of religious communities created the Sister Formation Conference in 1954 to provide new opportunities to all sisters, but particularly to the bevy of young women who were flooding into the convents during the 1950s. Working for the first time in a national, intercommunity network, the grassroots, semi-autonomous conference helped women’s congregations and individual sisters leverage the male clerical power structure by insisting that young sisters acquire college degrees before they were sent to their ministry sites.

Besides the personal and professional transitions brought about through graduate education, the sisters were highly influenced, if not radicalized, by their active, ongoing work with blacks, Hispanics and the poor – the marginalized of society. Galvanized by her work as a teacher in inner city Pittsburgh and armed with her PhD in government from Georgetown University, Sr. Maureen Fiedler, SL, experienced “a watershed in my life.” In Midwives of the Future, she wrote, “I had long reflected on King’s life and work and had come to see the struggle for racial justice as a contemporary version of the gospel movements from slavery to freedom. . . . It was clear that the social structures which caused poverty and reinforced racism had to be changed by actions that were systemic or ‘political’ and thus ‘worldly.’” Real-life issues involving race, ethnicity and class and the institutional bigotry that maintained systemic discrimination became powerful teachers providing catalysts for life-changing ideas and experiences.

Finally, the Second Vatican Council and the social activism of the 1960s coalesced to provide a major impetus for changes in religious life, a life that had changed little over the last five centuries. The 16 documents that eventually were published from the council proceedings included significant changes in the liturgy, the role of the laity, religious liberty, ecumenism and religious life. For women religious this meant revisiting their founders and initial beginnings and relooking at every aspect of religious life in an attempt to make their communities professionally and spiritually relevant to their historic roots and the issues of contemporary life. Everything from clothing, convent life and structure, and institutional ministries had to be examined, keeping the essentials and discarding the superficialities no longer relevant in the modern world.


In March 1965, more than 200,000 Catholic women were living and working in over 400 religious orders in the United States providing an invisible, and often taken for granted, workforce that had created and or staffed thousands of schools, hundreds of hospitals and social service agencies across the country. Although Catholic sisters had been ministering to blacks in Selma for decades, the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, on March 7 provided an important catalyst for a change in two centuries of religious life and work in the United States. Alabama had provided the setting for many civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. [Where they came from and who they were.]

Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law, implementation was slow in many parts of Alabama and across the Deep South, particularly on voter registration issues. Many areas of the state began mobilizing under the leadership of local activists with other supporters coming from northern states to facilitate registration of black voters. Alabama was second only to Mississippi in low voter registration for blacks. Located in Dallas County, Selma was an important test case where blacks made up the majority of voters in a city of 29,000, but only 2 percent were on the voting rolls. Activists had been trying to drum up support on this issue since 1963. Under the watchful vigilance of Sheriff Jim Clark, prospective black voters in Selma were beaten, jailed or fired from public jobs if they attempted to register to vote. After numerous strategies failed to achieve results, Martin Luther King Jr. planned a 54-mile march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery to petition Gov. George Wallace to protect black registrants in Dallas County.

Six hundred protesters gathered outside Brown Chapel on Sunday morning, March 7, 1965, to begin the march to Montgomery. Because of serious death threats, Martin Luther King Jr. was absent that morning, and the leadership considered postponing the march. Deciding to go forward, Hosea Williams and John Lewis led hundreds of black marchers from Brown Chapel toward Montgomery. Within minutes, just after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers on horseback attacked, firing tear gas, wielding clubs and swinging bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Mowed down by a phalanx of horses and troopers, 70 marchers were hospitalized and an equal number treated for injuries. By evening all the major television networks had interrupted their programming to carry the story, stunning complacent American viewers with film footage documenting the brutality and carnage to men, women and children.

By the next day, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in Chicago sent telegrams and press releases to dioceses throughout the country. In St. Louis, Archbishop Joseph Ritter charged his human rights commission to respond to the stunning events in Selma. By Wednesday morning, March 10, two Sisters of Loretto, two Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and two Franciscan Sisters of Mary from St. Louis were sitting in Brown Chapel with hundreds of clergy and citizens who had flown to Selma to bear witness and receive their instructions on nonviolent resistance from local and national black leadership. As the only black sister in the group of six, Sr. Antona Ebo, FSM, knew that if they were arrested she would be separated from the white sisters and thrown into a segregated jail. When asked to speak to the national media she announced, “I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness. . . . I am here today because yesterday I voted in St. Louis.”

Although the six Catholic sisters who marched in Selma were among hundreds of marchers, their presence was a landmark occurrence, an event that would reverberate around the country. Never before had Catholic sisters been involved in a national public protest, let alone one that was covered by all the national media. Initially the six nuns did not anticipate the impact of their public witness, but the violent racism and poverty they observed in Selma – and the reactions from the American Catholics, both positive and negative – provided a wake-up call to action for U.S. Catholic sisters from a wide range of communities in all parts of the country.

Within 24 hours of their return to St. Louis, Sisters of St. Joseph Rosemary Flanigan and Roberta Schmidt were featured on a popular radio call-in show. More than 10,000 callers from 40 states and Canada jammed the switchboard at the local station, both praising and angrily criticizing the sisters’ participation in Selma. The black community quickly realized the power of the sisters’ public witness. Interviewing Dr. King about the sisters’ participation, journalist John L. Wright Jr. wrote that King believed the “participation of the nuns in the Selma demonstrations ‘had a special significance’ in arousing the national conscience to the plight of the Negro because the public knows a nun to be a woman of ‘great sacrifice and dedication.’” As Wright reported, King believed that the presence of religious people “identified the church with the struggle . . . in a way that has not existed before and has made it clear that civil rights is, at the very bottom, a moral issue.”

Catholic nuns would never be found on the sidelines of social activism again – they moved center stage. Over the next two weeks, many sisters would come to Selma. Having Mississippi and Tennessee roots, Sister of St. Joseph Sr. Barbara Moore’s family had migrated north to gain more opportunities. As one of the few black sisters at Selma, she understood the danger of her public witness and realized that she could be “returning in a box” if violence got out of hand during the protests. By the final march to Montgomery, completed later that month, approximately 50 sisters representing 12 religious orders had gone to Selma, most coming from the Midwest. Sr. Mary Ann Sommer, BVM, would complete the 54-mile trek walking all the way to Montgomery even as mud weighted down her ankle-length, medieval habit and oozed into the cracks of her shoes. By the end of this seminal year, Selma veteran, Sr. Margaret Ellen Traxler, SSND, would be on the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice staff as director of the new Department of Educational Services, organizing sisters to work in summer and full-time programs in the South to alleviate racism and poverty. Writing for Extension magazine and echoing the sentiments of many at the time, Traxler wrote, “After Selma, Sister, you can’t stay home again!”

Social justice after Selma

The mandates of Vatican II dovetailed with the major social upheavals and transitions prevalent in 1960s America. The Vietnam War, the war on poverty, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement jerked the country out of its 1950s idyllic complacency and shook the nation into reexamining its own ideals and its bedrock principles of equality and justice for all. Women religious were far from immune from these social struggles and, emboldened by the mandates and optimism of Vatican II, they saw these events through the lens of Gospel imperatives and as significant opportunities to live their Catholic faith and religious identity in the modern world. When Harvard Ph.D., Sr. Marie Augusta Neal, SND de Namur, created her “Sisters Survey” in the 1960s, U.S. women’s communities, particularly apostolic congregations, were already making major changes at the very core of religious life. First published in 1968, the survey was intended to provide a window into what sisters were thinking and doing in light of the dramatic changes and renewal mandated by Vatican II. When the survey was conducted a third time in 1989, the transition was complete, and 80 percent of Catholic sisters surveyed listed social justice issues as their number-one concern.

The ministries of Catholic sisters exploded into a vast myriad of programs and services focusing on the marginalized of society and the signature social justice issues of the 20th century. Armed with graduate education, real-world experience and the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns began an even greater transition into the public sphere, expanding social justice ministries beyond institutional borders. They worked on issues of discrimination involving race, gender, ethnicity, immigration, disability and sexual orientation. They moved into the inner city and the hinterlands building housing projects and providing healthcare and education to the urban and rural poor. Prison ministry, anti-death penalty advocacy, HIV/AIDS care and environmental and peace activism became part of their social justice agenda. And globally, they reached out to women and children through microfinancing, fair trade advocacy, water and land management issues and anti-violence campaigns.

It is impossible to list all of the sisters’ social justice activities over the last 50 years, but the following examples illustrate this powerful transition. Sr. Joel Read, SSSF, was one of the original founding members of the National Organization for Women in 1966; in 1977, many nuns attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston and subsequent international U.N. conferences including the last one in Beijing, China, in 1995. In the 1970s, most large women’s communities formed Social Justice Task Forces, and in 1971, 47 Catholic sisters from a variety of communities founded NETWORK, a social justice watchdog group in Washington that lobbied politicians in both houses of Congress. By the end of the 20th century, more than 20 religious communities had accredited NGOs with lobbyists and consultants at the United Nations working toward the “Millennium Development Goals,” which included gender equality and women’s empowerment, education, health, poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, and global partnerships.

Joining with other secular agencies outside the Catholic church to advocate for justice, Catholic sisters provided advocacy and in some cases leadership for the development of Head Start, President Johnson’s war on poverty, the United Farm Workers, anti-war protests, anti-death penalty groups, the Sanctuary Movement supporting Latin and Central American refugees, as well as protests to close the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Attempting to take more active responsibility for the investment practices of national and global corporations, sisters also participated in protests and asserted power as stockholders against discriminatory policies involving issues such as worker’s rights, making weapons, utility costs for low-income people, and many issues involving multinational peoples.

In March, observances of Women’s History Month, the 50th anniversary of Selma, and National Catholic Sisters Week coalesce to highlight the sisters’ stories and their important legacy in U.S. history. The sisters’ legacy or gift is embedded deeply into the fabric of our society; and ultimately, it may prove to be the most profound and lasting legacy of the U.S. Catholic church in the 20th century.

[Carol Coburn is a professor of religious studies and women's and gender studies at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri. She was a consultant for the 2007 PBS documentary film, “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change,” produced and directed by Jayasri Majumdar Hart.]

Related: Articles from the National Catholic Reporter 1965 archives document
Catholic sisters' involvement in the Selma marches

Click here for a list of all our Selma coverage, including interviews with Sr. Barbara Moore, Sr. Barbara Lum,
columns by sisters and a link to NCR's 54 miles to freedom.