How Sister Barbara and the Benedictines Supported the Civil Rights Movement

When Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King died, Americans were reminded of how they had reacted during the Civil Rights movement. From the small river town of Nauvoo, Illinois, the Sisters of St. Benedict had supported the cause. Unified in prayer, they followed their consciences in different activities. Sr. Barbara Vaughn went to Birmingham to teach at an all-black college while other Sisters taught respect, tolerance and equality to their students in Nauvoo. Sr. Helen Carey marched from Selma to Montgomery as others staged a march on the Nauvoo village park. Many attended presentations by members of the Fort Madison, Iowa, NAACP.

In southern Illinois in the 1960's, that kind of behavior was radical.

"I remember black families arriving with daughters they were enrolling in the Academy," Sr. Phyllis McMurray, who served as principal of the Academy, says. "Even in later years, they would be so grateful to finally get to our door. All the way here, they encountered gas stations that wouldn't sell them gas and restaurants that wouldn't serve them meals. They would say, 'You are the first people to treat us like human beings since we left home.' That was deeply troubling. As Benedictines, we believe in receiving all people as Christ."

Meantime, the headlines out of the south grew worse: Four Girls Die in Church Bombing; Bodies of Civil Rights Activists Discovered; NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers Murdered, Demonstrators Clubbed and Gassed. When the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery took place in March of 1965, the Sisters decided to take part.

"We couldn't all go to Alabama," Sr. Marilyn Ring, who taught history at the Academy at the time, remembers. "So another Sister, who taught English, and I organized a local march to show our unity with the demonstrators down South. Some NAACP members from FortMadison came over and met us. They were walking with their children and pushing baby carriages. Most of the Academy girls and faculty joined us, although it wasn't mandatory. One girl begged not to go, because she said if her police chief father saw a picture of her in the newspaper, he would disown her.

"It's hard to imagine now how scary that was. People were scared that what we did would provoke violence. They had never been in a demonstration before. They had never seen a march before. The townspeople got word that we were going to march to the park and they virtually disappeared. Academy employees reported that there was a huge amount of traffic leaving town that morning. And most of the houses we marched by were shuttered. Shades drawn, doors shut. There might have been 200 of us. We sang 'We shall overcome' at the tops of our lungs. And when we arrived at the park, Medgar Evers' brother spoke. There was a wonderful feeling of unity. We were proud to be able to give such visible support to the civil rights cause."

Four years later, controversy still raging, Sr. Barbara accepted a position with an all-black college in Birmingham, one block from the bombed church. There, she discovered the truth of a Mark Twain line often quoted by Sr. Marilyn in her history classes: The Emancipation Proclamation ended lawful slavery but the blacks will never be free until we free them in our hearts.

Sr. Barbara, who was the only white teacher, says her job was twofold: to teach academics to the black students, and to witness Christ's tolerance and love to the white community. "I took the students everywhere," she remembers. "The white clerks would follow us all around the stores as if we were going to steal. I was still wearing a veil, so they knew I was a Sister. I took them to white Catholic churches. The parishioners let me know blacks weren't welcome. I didn't pay any attention. We went in, sat down and pretended we were supposed to be there.

"We did a lot of opening of white places. For instance, I took a group of black students to the skating rink. They weren't going to let them in. They made excuses. I stood up and said, I know this is because the students are black and they have just as much right to go here as the whites. They let them in.

"Another time, a pizza parlor advertised in the paper for girls to wait on tables. I sent three girls over. They were told there were no openings. So I sent a white girl over and she was hired right away. That proved it. I called them and said, I know you are still hiring. Now I'm going to send the black girls over again, and if you don't hire someone, I'm going to do something about it. Then I sent the three girls back and they hired one. You had to do that with white people. You had to threaten them."

The Sisters still engage in the radical behavior that once raised the eyebrows of some of society's most comfortable members. "When you live in solidarity with the world's most marginalized members, you can become something of an outcast yourself," Sr. Marilyn says. "Whether we are caring for AIDS patients, as Sr. Barbara did before she retired, or serving the poor, we are identified with that group. As was Jesus Christ. We are in good company."