Three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Andrew Connolly walked to the pulpit during Palm Sunday Mass at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Hicksville and issued a scathing rebuke to white people.
Connolly remembers calling King a “saint” and saying, “We white people turned him off, rejected the voice of the prophet of nonviolence and slandered him, making him out to be a communist and a demagogue.”
The reaction was swift, he said: About half the congregation of 1,000 people walked out on him.
A few days later in that tumultuous April of 1968, The Long Island Catholic published a letter from Connolly that was based on his homily, driving home the point: “We hold memorial services for a man we failed to support and even slandered — a sheer hypocrisy. Parish churches hold their social affairs in segregated country clubs, a scandal to every Jew and Negro in our communities. The clergy relax on the golf courses of segregated clubs, again a scandal to every man refused admission.”
The civil rights movement that is marking the 50th year since the slaying of its dynamic leader was born in churches across America. King himself, after all, was a Baptist minister who based the campaign for equal rights on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Throughout the country and across Long Island, people of faith followed King’s call. While most of the activists were black, whites joined in the cause, including two young men — New York City native Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — who were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi along with local son James Chaney for organizing rural blacks to register to vote during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.”
Connolly was among the white people on Long Island who committed themselves to fighting for the rights of blacks.
“I think he’s like a living saint,” said Sandy Thomas, a longtime member of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch — herself a well-known figure among civil rights advocates on Long Island.
In 1964 and 1965, as a young black woman in college, she took part in protests in Ohio and outside the White House in the nation’s capital. The latter stemmed from planned demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, which led to infamous “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when state troopers and local police attacked hundreds of demonstrators starting a march to Montgomery, the state’s capital.
Won people’s trust
Two months after his incendiary homily, Connolly, who was principal of Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville at the time, was assigned to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a mostly black parish. He spent the next 16 years there, serving not only as a priest but as a community organizer, school board member and driving force behind the creation of a day care center, an ambulance squad, a youth club, a health center, a library and a housing project.
Many local residents initially called him “whitey,” he said, but he eventually won their trust and admiration. He made enemies, too: A high-ranking school official once threatened him because Connolly was leading an effort to build a new library — a proposal opposed by some because they could get access to the North Babylon public library for $35 a year and didn’t want their taxes going up, he said.
“The whole racial thing was always a big issue for me,” said Connolly, now 87. Looking back on his years of activism, he said, “I have zero regrets about life.”
Both he and Thomas believe strides in the struggle for social justice and equality have been made on Long Island, but the region still has a long way to go.
Thomas, like Connolly, had a thirst for justice as the civil rights movement gained traction. In 1964, during her first year at Central State University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio, students protested outside a barbershop in the nearby village of Yellow Springs after a black student who was denied a haircut.
Police turned high-pressure fire hoses on the demonstrators. The next day, Thomas took part in a march on the local jail to protest the arrests of numerous students.
Then, a year later, Thomas joined a group of students who planned to travel to Selma and join in the civil rights demonstrations there.
The group — mainly young people who had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, one of the primary organizations driving the movement — arrived in Washington, D.C., the day before the Selma march was to start. But they were told that they would not be going on to Alabama; trouble seemed to be on the horizon.
Instead, they spent a frigid night outside the White House at a vigil. Every so often, local churches opened their doors to the students for hot chocolate and a chance to warm up, Thomas recalled.
Faith a major motivator
The next morning, March 7, led by James Farmer, a co-founder of the Congress for Racial Equality, they marched to the Washington Monument for a rally. They sang spirituals as they walked, Thomas said, and tears filled her eyes.
Her Catholic faith was a major motivating factor for her participation in the movement.
“I was always very spiritual as a kid. I knew that we were supposed to do something,” said Thomas, a longtime resident of Wheatley Heights who grew up in East Elmhurst and now is retired as a public school social worker.
“As a Christian, just like Martin Luther King, you have to fight for justice for others and for all. That’s what your responsibility is,” she said. “If you read his writings, it was always faith-based.”
Connolly became interested in social justice when he was 14. One day in May 1945, he said, he was riding the subway from Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn to his family’s home in St. Albans, Queens.
Lying on the seat was a copy of The Catholic Worker, the newspaper published by Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement that espouses a view of Catholicism committed to the spiritual Works of Mercy. Catholic Worker houses, including two in Manhattan, offer impoverished people food, shelter and clothing.
Reading the newspaper for the first time “was my introduction to a radical conversion,” Connolly said.
Not long after, he visited the Catholic Worker house where Day lived, and ran into her immediately. She quickly put him to work making sandwiches, he said.
Later, Day sent Connolly to see Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a close friend of Day’s who had founded an interracial social services center in Harlem called Friendship House. It was there that Connolly began another transformation, confronting prejudices that had surrounded him growing up, including in his own home.
“This was my first direct contact with a black person,” he recalled. “I began to meet black people as people. I began to question all the prejudices I had.” The experience “changed my entire attitude.”
Connolly later entered the seminary for the Diocese of Brooklyn. After his ordination in 1956, he became one of the first priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre when it was carved out of the Brooklyn diocese in 1957.
He hoped to work in a Latino community, he said, in part because he and some other seminarians had worked with Puerto Ricans in Williamsburg during their training. But he was assigned to St. Agnes Cathedral parish in Rockville Centre, one of the richest communities on Long Island.
Still, he was able to seek out blacks living in the community, along with some Puerto Ricans who lived above the stores. He became so entwined with the black community that at one point he was invited to preach at the funeral of a local black resident. He was the only white person in the church, he said.
Praise and criticism
In Hicksville on the day he gave his fiery sermon, while many parishioners walked out, many also stayed and congratulated him, he said. When his letter was published in The Long Island Catholic, it provoked an avalanche of letters both praising and vilifying him.
Eventually, he was assigned to the parish in Wyandanch, and thus began one of the most satisfying stretches of his life. Most of the projects he launched there came through the Wyandanch Community Development Corp., which he organized with other local leaders.
Connolly, who is retired, said it is difficult for him to judge how much race relations and social justice have improved on Long Island since he left the parish in 1984 and went to serve 17 years in the diocese’s mission in the Dominican Republic.
“The scene is better. I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” he said. But “there is still a lot of fear among white people of anyone who is black, because they don’t know them and don’t particularly care to know them.”
Thomas sees signs of both hope and despair.
She was organizing a play at a Black History Month event in Huntington a few years ago, she said, and when it came time to ask someone to play the part of King, a number of sixth-grade boys raised their hands — including some white students.
She also thinks her parish in Wyandanch has done a good job of pursuing Catholic social teachings and pushing for structural change in society. But the church at large needs to do much better, she said, as segregation remains prevalent on the Island.
“I don’t think a lot of other Catholic churches do what my church does” in addressing inequality and racism, she said. “I think our pope is very into Catholic social teachings and I’m not sure that is happening, and I think that is what Martin Luther King would be about.”