(OSV News) — The March on Washington 60 years ago will forever be remembered for the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But it is also worth remembering that the march’s invocation was delivered by Washington Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who not only stood with Dr. King that day, but dedicated his life to seeking justice for all people.
Shortly after becoming Washington’s first resident archbishop in 1948, Archbishop O’Boyle began integrating local Catholic parishes and schools. Washington’s new archbishop was a no-nonsense man, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, whose father was an Irish immigrant and worked in a steel mill. As a New York parish priest, Father O’Boyle served in a poor neighborhood and later helped lead the U.S. Catholic Church’s relief efforts to refugees affected by World War II and its aftermath.
In a 1987 interview, retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, who had been a key administrator during that era in the Archdiocese of Washington and assisted Archbishop O’Boyle in the effort to integrate schools, said, “He (Archbishop O’Boyle) thought everybody at that time needed to be reminded we were all children of God, regardless of race.”
By the time the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregated schools, integration was well underway at Catholic schools in the nation’s capital and in surrounding Maryland. Chief Justice Earl Warren conferred with Archbishop O’Boyle about the archdiocese’s integration efforts before the court’s historic ruling, said Archbishop Hannan, who died in 2011.
Archbishop O’Boyle also led efforts with Washington interfaith leaders to increase educational and employment opportunities for minorities in the nation’s capital.
“Whenever he saw injustice, he went after it. He was really his brother’s keeper,” said Col. John Posey, a prominent D.C. educator and African-American Catholic who died in 1989.
During Vatican II, Archbishop O’Boyle strongly called for a statement against racism and anti-Semitism.
The plain-speaking prelate was at home as he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and offered the opening prayer at the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Bless this nation and all its people. May the warmth of Your love replace the coldness that springs from prejudice and bitterness,” prayed Archbishop O’Boyle. “Send in our midst the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of all to the great truth that all men are equal in Your sight. Let us understand that simple justice demands that the rights of all be honored by every man.”
Archbishop O’Boyle concluded his prayer with the words, “May we move forward without bitterness, even when confronted with prejudice and discrimination. May we shun violence, knowing that the meek shall inherit the earth. But may this meekness of manner be joined with courage and strength so that with Your help, O Heavenly Father, and following the teachings of Christ, Your Son, we shall now and in the days to come live together as brothers in dignity, justice, charity and peace.”
But Archbishop O’Boyle had done more than attend the march. He had encouraged local parishioners to participate, and march with their pastors holding banners identifying their parishes and ministries.
Along with The Catholic University of America and Georgetown University, five local parishes — Saints Paul and Augustine, Holy Redeemer, Holy Comforter, St. Anthony and the Shrine of the Sacred Heart — offered overnight accommodations to out-of-town marchers. The Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women played key roles in offering hospitality to the marchers.
On the morning of the march, special Masses were held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and at several Catholic churches in the city.
In his 2006 book “Steadfast in the Faith: The Life of Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle” published by The Catholic University of America Press, author Morris MacGregor noted, “(Archbishop) O’Boyle’s forthright endorsement of the march, as well as his participation, influenced many of his fellow bishops and American Catholics. Thousands of religious and laity, marching under banners that proclaimed their parish affiliation, provided a visual affirmation of the Church’s commitment to racial justice.”
Archbishop O’Boyle was named a cardinal in 1967, and retired in 1973 after leading the Archdiocese of Washington for 25 years. At his death in 1987 at the age of 91, Cardinal O’Boyle was eulogized as the “founding father” of the Archdiocese of Washington. In the post-war Baby Boom, he oversaw the formation of dozens of parishes and the construction of over 300 buildings, and he once said he was proud that all of the new buildings had been built for a spiritual purpose. He also built bridges of understanding and opportunity between people of different races and backgrounds. His episcopal motto, fittingly, was “State in Fide,” Latin for “Stand Fast in the Faith.”
Mark Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.