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Dawn Eden GoldsteinFebruary 05, 2024
Louis J. Twomey, S.J., circa 1956 (Loyola University New Orleans Special Collections)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

On a spring evening in 1962, thousands of segregationists descended upon Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans for a White Citizens’ Council meeting—unaware that in their midst was a Jesuit priest determined to undermine them.

Louis J. Twomey, S.J., who counted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among his friends, had embedded himself in the raucous crowd. With him were two of his lay assistants from Loyola University New Orleans, where he headed the Institute of Industrial Relations, plus Max Reichard, a graduating high school senior.

“That’s one of the few times I saw Father Twomey without his clerics,” Mr. Reichard told me in a recent interview. “I felt like we would have been attacked if we had made any kind of identification of who we were.”

Indeed, Father Twomey was known as one of the most outspoken white allies of New Orleans’s Black community. As early as November 1955, the local civil rights leader Revius Ortique Jr. said when introducing him at a public event, “I fear that we may not have Father Twomey in our midst in the South much longer, for other courageous men of conviction who spoke out for right had to be sent farther north for their own safety and protection.”

Although it is heartening now to read of clergy and religious who advocated civil rights, the Catholic Church as an institution was slow to embrace racial justice. And research into the treatment of African Americans by the Society of Jesus has uncovered numerous uncomfortable truths. Rachel L. Swarns has written extensively on the Jesuits’ participation in the slave trade, and Christopher Kellerman, S.J., has documented how some of the Society’s theologians provided support for such participation. Others have described the ways in which many 20th-century U.S. Jesuits failed to take a leading role in school integration, resisted admitting Black Americans into their ranks and (in the case of the Federated Colored Catholics) even usurped Black Catholics’ leadership.

Today the Jesuits are working to raise funds for racial justice in cooperation with the descendants of the women and men who were enslaved by the Society. Georgetown University has created a Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation initiative, and in 2016 a subgroup of that initiative created the Georgetown Slavery Archive. But the path from discrimination to seeking, however imperfectly, to promote civil rights and make amends for past wrongs is a long one. Father Twomey is among those Jesuits whose personal journey and legacy provided an example during his own lifetime. His work, which included co-drafting the Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe’s 1967 “Letter on the Interracial Apostolate,” resonates in the Society today.

A Neglected Pioneer

Researchers have often overlooked or minimized Twomey’s contributions, focusing instead on other Jesuits active in civil rights. The only major published study on him, the slim monograph At Face Value, by the former America editor C. J. McNaspy, S.J., was published in 1978. Perhaps he is of less interest to scholars because he died relatively young and did not publish academic works. Or perhaps his obscurity is related to the fact that he was never disciplined or taken off an assignment for his civil rights activism, unlike such boundary-pushing interracialists as Joseph H. Fichter, S.J., Claude Heithaus, S.J., and the brothers John and William Markoe, S.J. But if Twomey took care to avoid conflict with his superiors, it was with the clear aim to change the Society’s thinking from within.

He overcame his own prejudice and felt compelled to work ‘harder than any’ of his brother Jesuits to make up for lost time.

There is another likely reason for scholars’ neglect of Father Twomey. The Markoes, Fichter, Heithaus and perhaps the best-known civil rights activist of all Jesuits, John LaFarge, S.J., all spent nearly their entire careers working to improve the lives of Black Americans. That was decidedly not the case for Twomey, who was a convert to racial justice, and a delayed one at that. Like St. Paul, conscious of having been “untimely born,” he overcame his own prejudice and felt compelled to work “harder than any” of his brother Jesuits to make up for lost time (1 Cor 15:8, 10).

Interior Struggle of a Dixie Dreamer

Born in 1905, Twomey was raised in racially segregated Tampa, Fla. White supremacy was in the air he breathed. He was taught to reverence the legacy of the Confederacy, for which his great-grandfather and five great-uncles had died in battle.

Later on, Twomey recalled that none of his teachers at what is now Jesuit High in Tampa provided “even [an] elementary understanding of the serious wrongfulness of [his] ideas and practices in race relations.” By his own admission, he entered into adulthood “deeply prejudiced.”

At Georgetown University, Twomey distinguished himself in the debating hall and on the baseball diamond. But at the end of his junior year, he left to enter the Society of Jesus’ New Orleans Province. It was a decision that surprised no one—except, perhaps, the Washington Senators, then the top team in the American League, which had offered him a contract.

During the late 1930s, as Twomey studied theology, he discovered Catholic social teaching through Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” Pius XI’s “Quadragesimo Anno,” and Pius XI’s “Divini Redemptoris.” He was taken with the social encyclicals’ vision of human dignity, writing articles for The Catholic Worldurging readers to follow “Christ the Workingman” and “go to the poor.”

Twomey could no longer separate Catholic social teaching from solidarity with Black Americans.

However, when it came to who exactly were the poor, Twomey hesitated to follow the encyclicals’ implicit call to work toward racial justice. After his priestly ordination in June 1939, he confided to a brother Jesuit, “I heard God say to me, ‘Go to my little people.’” It was evident to him that, in his native South, Black Americans made up the overwhelming proportion of those whom Christ called “these least” of his brothers and sisters (Mt 25:40). But before he could internalize the implications of his call-within-a-call, he endured what he later described as a “severe interior struggle” to “free [himself] from the blinding effects of prejudice” against Black Americans. Several years would pass before he saw the light.

What is known about Twomey’s conversion of heart comes from a talk he gave many times (with variations) from the early 1950s onward, addressing his listeners as a Southerner drawing upon his personal experiences to help others recognize and reject their own racist views. Recalling his youthful outlook in a June 1958 radio speech, he said: “Uncritically I conformed to the…habits of white supremacy. I did so out of loyalty, as I then believed, to what we in the South call our sacred traditions.”

Twomey described his awakening in dramatic terms, as though he had escaped from a cult. He told radio listeners in March 1963, “In my present perspective, it is shocking to reflect that for long years I was part of a vast conspiracy, coldly calculated to deprive my Negro fellowmen of the spiritual and material goods to which under God they have an inalienable right and without which it is impossible to develop in the fullness of their human dignity.”

The young Jesuit’s conflicted views became apparent in an article he wrote shortly after his ordination. In the essay “Rebels for Christ’s Sake,” written in December 1939 for his Jesuit province’s newsletter, Twomey seemed to be trying to convince himself he could be a social apostle while remaining a son of the Confederacy. He argued that Southerners, formerly known for their so-called War of the Rebellion, now had the duty to fight “the war of rebellion against the moral, the social and the economic injustices in the South.” Although his intentions were admirable, Twomey’s effort to baptize the language of the Old South’s “sacred traditions” was strained at best. His Dixie dream died hard.

The Final Break

After receiving his licentiate in theology from St. Mary’s College in Kansas in 1940, Twomey wrote to his provincial superior. Having heard that Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans wanted Loyola University to open a labor school, he offered to defer his tertianship (the final stage of Jesuit formation) so he could take on the task. But his provincial did not want him to interrupt his formation, so Twomey did his tertianship and in 1941 was made principal at his alma mater, Jesuit High School. His role included mentoring Jesuit scholastics teaching there, one of whom, Harold Rahm, S.J., would devote his life to helping at-risk youth.

Twomey emphasized in his lectures that concern for working people necessitated concern for racial equality.

“[Twomey] inspired us with his deep charity and kindness,” Father Rahm later wrote. “To be a good teacher, one only had to observe his example.”

But the return to segregated Tampa did nothing to help Twomey break his emotional ties to the Old South. As late as February 1945, he accepted an invitation to offer “memorial tributes” to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury at a Daughters of the Confederacy luncheon.

The decisive stage in Twomey’s conversion did not take place until after 1945—the year he received permission to pursue his dream. A new provincial superior sent him to study economics under the labor priest Leo C. Brown, S.J., at St. Louis University’s Institute of Social Order, which was then led by the great media apostle Daniel A. Lord, S.J. Upon obtaining his master’s degree, he was to open a labor school at Loyola University New Orleans.

Although Twomey later said he couldn’t recall exactly when his thought changed, by the time he left the I.S.O.—which had a robust interracialism department—he could no longer separate Catholic social teaching from solidarity with Black Americans. The shift became evident in his choice of societal memberships before and after his time at the institute. When he arrived in St. Louis, he joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But when he arrived in New Orleans just two years later, in 1947, he joined the Urban League, one of the longest-established civil rights organizations, as well as the Southern Regional Council, a predominantly white group that promoted racial equality.

From then on, Twomey never wanted to see the Stars and Bars again. In 1956, a Chicago newspaper reporter trailing him at the Summer School of Catholic Action saw him rebuke a group of high school girls from Memphis for wearing the Confederate flag on gray soldiers’ caps. Twomey, who was on his way to deliver a lecture against racism, snapped at the startled teens that, given that the flag was that of the losing side of the Civil War, “it should be folded up and put away.”

Turning to the reporter, Twomey explained, “They wear it now as a symbol of rebellion.” By then, he was so disgusted with Old South nostalgia that he refrained from urging the young women to become “rebels for Christ’s sake.”

A ‘Dangerous Man’ to Racists

The Institute of Industrial Relations that Twomey founded at Loyola did not advertise itself as a civil rights bastion. Like other labor schools, it sought to promote human dignity according to Catholic social teaching, thereby providing a bulwark against both communism and laissez-faire capitalism. But Twomey emphasized in his lectures that concern for working people necessitated concern for racial equality, and it didn’t take long for interracialism to become integral to the institute’s mission. In 1961, The Chicago Defender, the nation’s largest Black-owned newspaper, observed, “It seems whatever Twomey touches turns interracial.”

Twomey’s genius was to use his stature as a respected labor advocate to link the fight against communism to the fight for civil rights.

Twomey’s genius was to use his stature as a respected labor advocate to link the fight against communism to the fight for civil rights. His argument was simple: White supremacy, in presenting the United States to the world as a land of inequality, only served to fuel communism’s spread. He even compared segregationists with Adolf Hitler, telling a Detroit Times reporter in July 1950, “Three-fourths of the world’s population is nonwhite, and therefore we can’t hope to win their loyalties—and we must win them—by using essentially the same tactics Hitler used in his racism.”

For claiming that racial segregation impeded the fight against communism, Twomey became a target of conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr., who derided his argument as “nonsensical.” Others used harsher words.

Twomey told a 1953 Teamsters gathering that he had been called a “Red in Robes” (the robes being his cassock), a “racial fanatic,” a “dangerous man,” and a “n—— lover.” He did not fear such “intemperate epithets,” he added, but he did fear that “the gross injustices...inherent in our interracial relations in the South” would bring down “the avenging wrath of an angry God.” As he put it in a 1950 speech to Catholic educators, “How long is God going to allow his image and likeness in black skin to be kicked around?”

If his words were fiery, Twomey’s presence was equally passionate. Joseph J. Fahey, co-founder of Pax Christi USA, heard him speak at the Summer School of Catholic Action at Fordham University in New York in 1957 and 1958. “He changed my life,” Mr. Fahey told me. “Father Twomey inspired me to pursue a career in pursuing the reign of God here on earth.”

Another who heard Twomey in 1958 was Nancy Daly, who attended the Houston Summer School of Catholic Action. Ms. Daly wrote to me in an email, “I thought I was listening to John the Baptist, if St. John had worn black clerical garb and chain-smoked.... His conviction and empathy for the suffering were galvanizing.”

Daniel Thompson, a Black sociology professor at Dillard University in New Orleans who worked with both Father Twomey and Dr. King, likewise saw echoes of John the Baptist in Twomey. After Twomey’s death, Dr. Thompson remembered him as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” He explained, “One word then in defense of racial equality and desegregation was worth more than reams and volumes of statements articulated later by civil rights advocates.”

Twomey won the respect of Archbishop Rummel, who made the Jesuit his spokesman on labor issues.

Twomey won the respect of Archbishop Rummel, who made the Jesuit his spokesman on labor issues. He also became the archbishop’s most visible ally in his headline-making battles against segregationists.

Other battles were closer to home. In 1950, Twomey managed to integrate his Institute of Industrial Relations without incident (“the first instance of integrated education on a campus in the Deep South since Reconstruction,” his friend Walker Percy noted). But he tried repeatedly without success to convince Loyola to admit Black candidates to its law school. Victory finally came in 1952, when, partly on his recommendation, the law school admitted Norman Francis, who later became the first Black president of Xavier University of Louisiana. (Loyola remained closed to Black undergraduates until 1962.)

At Loyola’s Jesuit residence, Twomey’s neighbors included pro-segregation priests who considered him a troublemaker. But Jesuit scholastics looked to him for guidance on social issues, and not just at Loyola. The Institute of Industrial Relations’ social-justice newsletter Christ’s Blueprint for the South, which Twomey began publishing in 1948, took off in popularity during the 1950s.

Twomey conceived the Blueprint as a medium for Jesuits to discuss privately how best to implement the social teachings of the church. By the time he died in 1969, it had 3,000 subscribers in 44 countries, reaching one in 10 members of the Society of Jesus (and likely was passed on to many more).

Since the Blueprint was intended as a safe space for internal criticism of the Society, Twomey normally declined non-Jesuits’ requests for copies. Buckley was among the many whose requests were rebuffed. But Twomey privately shared the Blueprint with people outside the Society whom he considered partners in his mission. Among them was a young Baptist minister whom he met in early 1954: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Historic Letters Lost and Found

Until last year, Twomey’s friendship with King was unknown to researchers. No letters from King were listed in the Twomey Papers at Loyola University New Orleans Special Collections, and no published sources mentioned that the two communicated.

Until last year, Twomey’s friendship with King was unknown to researchers.

Fifteen letters from King to Twomey and his colleague Henry J. Engler Jr., dean of Loyola’s business school, came to my attention through John Payne, S.J., author of a 1976 dissertation on Twomey. In August 2023, Father Payne gave me retyped copies of the letters and explained how they had become lost. I confirmed his account with Trish Nugent, head of Loyola’s Special Collections, as well as Engler’s grandson, Billy Hammel, both of whom provided additional details. In addition, I have found unpublished letters between King and Twomey in Boston University’s King archives.

The letters disappeared after Twomey’s death, when Engler removed them from Twomey’s papers before they could be cataloged. Because Twomey was discreet about his friendship with King (perhaps to protect the Baptist pastor from the disapproval that might have arisen, given some Protestants’ prejudices against Jesuits), their disappearance went unnoticed.

Payne learned of the letters only after completing his dissertation; Engler gave him retyped copies of them. Although Loyola’s then-archivist begged Engler to return the originals, the former dean refused. Engler died in 2000; the original letters survived in his daughter’s possession until 2005, when they were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

The letters reveal that Twomey was King’s earliest ally in the Catholic clergy. King first wrote to him on April 14, 1954, from Boston University, where he was completing his Ph.D. Earlier that day, he had written to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., accepting the call to become its pastor.

Twomey and King may have been introduced by the Rev. A. L. Davis, a Baptist pastor (and later, with King, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) who knew Twomey from the Urban League. Given King’s desire to use his new pastorate to work for racial justice in the South, he would likely have been eager to meet a white Southern clergyman who shared his vision—especially one unafraid of taking risks.

“Dear and Reverend Father,” King typed, “I am deeply grateful for your encouragement during my last visit to New Orleans. We are beginning to move. With God’s Help, M. L. King, Jr.”

When King assumed leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott on Dec. 5, 1955, to protest segregation, Twomey sprang into action. Within a few days, he elicited donations for the protest from Mayor Chep Morrison of New Orleans and others, which he mailed to King, earning a note of thanks. “My people say it eloquently,” King wrote, “‘nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’”

The letters reveal that Twomey was King’s earliest ally in the Catholic clergy.

Engler entered the correspondence to forward reading materials to King on Twomey’s behalf. King’s replies reveal that Twomey introduced him to the papal encyclicals as well as to the Blueprint. The Jesuit’s expertise on labor issues made him a vital resource for King at a time when the civil rights leader was seeking to build ties with unions.

As the boycott continued, King wrote to Engler on May 6, 1956, “Please thank Father for the Blueprints and the material from [union leader] Mr. [Philip] Piro. I need about a dozen copies of ‘The Fortieth Year’ [Quadragesimo Anno].” And after the boycott succeeded, during a week when his face was on the cover of Time, King wrote to Engler on Feb. 18, 1957, “Please copy from Father’s files some of his statements to the people involved in the last sugar-cane strike.”

During this same period, King and Twomey crossed paths at several events and met privately at least twice. On April 24, 1957, King wrote to Twomey recalling a meeting they had in February: “I can never forget the rich fellowship which we had together.... You have my prayers and best wishes for continued success in the great work that you are doing.”

I have also discovered a letter where Twomey himself describes that same meeting. After Father Bill Kidwell, S.J., wrote to Twomey in December 1959 about his own encounter with King, Twomey replied on Jan. 7, 1960, “Some years ago, I had the privilege of speaking to [King] for about two hours. I was tremendously impressed, but my conversation with him made me all the sadder when I realized that Catholics who could be leading the whole movement for interracial justice and charity so often go in the opposite direction.”

Despite disappointments, Twomey continued to use his voice and writings to persuade Catholics to work for civil rights. His work in that regard proved useful to King, who wrote to Engler on Oct. 26, 1963, to request copies of Twomey’s pamphlet “How to Think About Race.” “They are fine reading material for the forcefully inactive,” King wrote.

Despite disappointments, Twomey continued to use his voice and writings to persuade Catholics to work for civil rights.

King’s thoughts turned to Twomey at critical times of his life. During his Birmingham campaign, he wrote to Engler on April 10, 1963, two days before his arrest: “Please thank Father for his notes to the Southern Jesuits. We need prayers.” On Dec. 10, 1964, after giving his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, he wrote to Engler from Oslo, “Tell Father the books were most welcome. I am tired, but I always find time to follow Father’s suggestions.”

A Lasting Legacy

Father Twomey followed Dr. King’s suggestions as well. He wrote in the March 1963 Blueprint, “From this great Negro Protestant leader, we Catholics can learn much about the practical implications of justice and charity.” As the 1960s progressed, Twomey sought to work out those implications more effectively, leading his department—renamed the Institute of Human Relations—to develop job-training and housing programs. He also opened the Inter-American Center at Loyola, which trained more than 1,000 emerging Latin American leaders in social, economic and political development.

Pedro Arrupe, S.J., right, then superior general of the Society of Jesus, requested the assistance of Louis Twomey, S.J., left, in preparing a letter on interracial issues that became the guiding document for Jesuit institutions throughout the United States. (Courtesy of the Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

As the Blueprint continued to motivate Jesuits worldwide to put social justice principles into action, one person who followed Twomey’s writings with interest was the Jesuit superior general, Father Pedro Arrupe. In the summer of 1967, Arrupe summoned Twomey to Rome with William Kenealy, S.J., of Boston College Law School to draft a letter to American Jesuits on race. “The Interracial Apostolate,” promulgated in November 1967, canonized the arguments Twomey had long made for the Society to take leadership in promoting racial justice.

Among the effects of the letter’s publication was the establishment of a social justice office at what is now known as the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States—an office that continues there to this day. The letter also motivated a group of Jesuit priests and scholastics, including the future president of Catholic Charities USA, Fred Kammer, S.J., to assemble a proposal for a broad program of social action for the poor and particularly people of color.

On Easter Monday, 1969, the Jesuit scholastic Kammer and his fellow group members met with Twomey to share their project, to which he gave his blessing. When Twomey died six months later from emphysema, it was with the knowledge that a new generation of Jesuits would continue seeking the good of the people for whom he had long labored.

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