The long arc toward racial justice: A story from the Messenger archives

Charles Toney, left, and Father Marvin Mottet talk in this file photo.


By Timothy Walch

For The Catholic Messenger

On Sept. 1, 2016, the editor of The Catholic Messenger asked a question that resonates across the long history of the quest for racial justice in the Diocese of Dav­en­port. “If I believe in the sanctity of every life as my Chur­ch teaches,” wrote Barb Arland-Fye, “how am I demonstrating that belief toward people of a different race?”

This was the fundamental question that the diocese had been asking for more than 70 years. From the days of the League for Social Justice in the 1950s and the Catholic Interracial Council in the 1960s up to the present day, diocesan Catholics have responded to that question in different ways.


We see an ebb and flow to the campaign against racism. The efforts to educate and agitate in the 1950s led to campaigns for legislation in the 1960s. High expectations developed when the diocese joined Project Equality in September 1970. It was front-page news in the Messenger.

Project Equality was a national program that brought together hundreds of religious congregations, denominations, and organizations in a common commitment to racial justice. Among these sponsors were 55 Catholic dioceses in 23 states. The specific intent of Project Equality was to apply the principles of racial equality to all aspects of church operations. Charged with local responsibility for the program, Father Marvin Mottet enlisted the support of 50 parishes, 25 church-related institutions, and 31 schools in the diocese.

Enthusiastic leadership, however, was not enough to sustain Project Equality. By March 1973, one Messenger headline said it all: “Project Equality Dies: Lack of Support is Claimed.” Father Mottet told the Messenger, “it must be remembered that it did not close because the job was done.”

Malaise also infected the Catholic Interracial Council. By the end of 1976, the organization that had done so much to fight racism in Davenport announced it was disbanding and suspending the Pacem in Terris Award program. After a hiatus of two years, a coalition of Quad-City organizations revived the award and it continues to this day as a legacy of the CIC.

The Messenger mourned the end of the CIC. In an editorial in June 1976, the editors were wistful about the CIC’s work and noted the courage of its leaders in admitting the organization was no longer effective in fighting racism. The CIC “left a lot of people with a lot of memories and the hope for some fresh beginnings,” the Messenger said.

Unfortunately, the 1980s brought more memories and few fresh beginnings. The Messenger reported on a 1983 reunion of CIC alumni and the legacy of Charles Toney in the fight for civil rights in Davenport. Friends gathered that spring, shared memories and watched Toney’s film of the 1963 March on Washington.

This theme of reflection continued into the 1990s. In 1993, for example, the Messenger reported on a lecture and publication by Father George McDaniel of St. Ambrose University in Davenport on the history of the League for Social Justice. Through substantive documentary research, Father McDaniel showed how the League became a foundation for the ongoing fight against racism.

In 2010, the Putnam Museum in Davenport used Father McDaniel’s research in an exhibit that underscored the importance of the League and the CIC in finding some measure of justice for people of color. “I’m a Catholic,” noted one visitor. “I’m very proud of the contributions they made.”

Many individuals contributed to the fight for racial justice in the diocese, but Msgr. Marvin Mottet stood out as a pre-eminent figure. He joined the League for Social Justice in 1951, became chaplain of the CIC in 1957 and worked closely with Charles Toney in the 1960s.

Msgr. Mottet devoted most of his life to fighting poverty and speaking up for people of color. His tireless efforts led to his selection as Pacem in Terris Award recipient in 2008. In accepting the award, he shared credit and called for more action. “This award is not about me,” Msgr. Mottet said, “it’s about all of us and what we have been able to do over the years and how much we have left to do.”

Throughout his life and work, the Messenger supported Msgr. Mottet. In stories and editorials, the Messenger’s writers and editors continued to speak out against racism. “The dignity of every person is sacred,” noted an editorial in February 1989. “Racism in any form denies this. Racism is a scandal.”

Messenger editors invoked wisdom from a variety of sources. “Pope Paul VI once said that if we want to achieve peace,” wrote Barb Arland-Fye in 2014, “we need to work for justice. All of us — black and white people — need to work together to do just that.”

Prescient commentary came from Jim Collins, a prominent social activist. “We may have come on different ships,” he told the Messenger in 2016, “but we’re all in the same boat now. Like it or not, we’re codependent for our joint survival. … Let’s start to put a stop to racism.”

And new light shines in this long search for justice. In a November 2018 issue of the Messenger, for example, Bishop Thomas Zinkula shared his own family’s experience with racism as a teachable moment. And work being done in communities such as West Point and Farmington shows that parishes of all sizes can work in common cause. “My goal is to get our parishes to dialogue about racism,” Father Dennis Hoffman told the Messenger, “and to see what we can do in our parish and community to stop racism.”

In these recent efforts lie the legacy of the League for Social Justice, the Catholic Interracial Council, and the work of numerous social activists in our diocese from the 1950s to the present. Thanks, in part, to the archives of The Catholic Messenger, we have a record of that important work. Let us hope that the work for racial justice will continue from parish to parish in perpetuity.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)


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