Author says Church played a key role in fighting discrimination


Historian Kenneth Burt, a member of Presentation Parish in Sacramento, is the author of a new book titled “The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics.” In research for his book over the past two decades, he says it became clear that the Catholic Church in California has long been a central actor in the struggle to overcome discrimination and encourage civic engagement.


He currently works as the political director of the California Federation of Teachers and previously worked for former state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.


In a recent interview, Burt discussed major aspects of his book.


Q: Aside from the current debate over immigration reform or maybe the farm workers’ struggle, most people aren’t aware of the church’s long history of political engagement relative to the Latino community. How did you develop an interest in the subject?


A: It probably started in high school when I saw Father Keith Kenny (diocesan priest who died in 1983) celebrating Mass for farm workers seeking justice at the state Capitol. I came to understand that this was a civil rights issue and a labor issue, but it was also a religious issue.


So I started reading and talking to people and realized that the social gospel went back to Pope Leo XIII, Msgr. John Ryan, and the “Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction” in 1919. This in turn served as the foundation for President Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s. The New Deal was pro-labor and sought to incorporate immigrants and their children into civic life. Roosevelt appointed Msgr. Ryan as the first director of his Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II.


Because Latinos were the most vulnerable Catholic population in California, the church took a number of initiatives here to materially uplift and to empower Latinos. These efforts began shortly after Mexicans, including a number of exiled priests, began arriving en masse in Los Angeles after the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.


Q: What are your primary findings in the book?


A: The first discovery is that the birth of Latino politics started earlier than was previously understood. Latinos started running for office, they established the first political action committee, and backed supportive Anglo candidates in the 1930s.

This was in the context of the New Deal and President Roosevelt’s outreach to the “foreign born” — which included the Irish, Italians and Jews — who were not yet in the political mainstream. Latinos had unique needs, but there were also a lot of shared interests with these other ethnic groups.


The second finding flows from the first — that is the central role of coalitions in electing candidates and enacting legislation. The total number of Latino voters started out small, but the group achieved a number of successes as part of larger coalitions.


Q: How does the current role of the Church in policy issues differ from earlier periods?


A: In the 1930s and 1940s, relatively few Latinos were registered to vote and politically-oriented Latino organizations were in their infancy. The group with the largest Latino membership was the Church. This created a lot of responsibility.


For example, early in World War II the federal government conducted a secret study because they were worried that discrimination against Latinos in California and the Southwest would hurt the war effort. It was vetted with U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez (D-New Mexico) and representatives of the Catholic bishops. People forget that Roosevelt provided the start-up funds for the Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish-Speaking, with John J. Cantwell, the Irish-born Archbishop of Los Angeles serving as its titular head.


The church likewise played a big role in empowering local communities. Parish priests helped organized the Mexican American-oriented Community Services Organization (CSO). Between 1948 and 1960, CSO registered 440,000 new voters. CSO also trained a generation of Mexican American leaders, participated in a number of coalitions and helped elect Latinos to local office in several cities.


Q: Describe a few of the larger issues that the Church championed in the 1940s and 1950s.


A: The big issue was fair employment. Some law firms, for example, advertised for “Protestant” attorneys; other businesses sought “white” workers. Mexican Americans were subjected to prejudices based on skin color, language skills, country of origin and religion.


Msgr. Thomas O’Dwyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, served as co-chair of the California Committee for Fair Employment Practices. Edward Roybal, the Latino whom Msgr. O’Dwyer had helped elect to the Los Angeles City Council, was another co-chair. Jews, African Americans, Protestants and the unions were all represented in the grand coalition. Support built and the state Legislature finally passed a fair employment bill in 1959. Gov. Pat Brown, who had campaigned on the issue, signed it into law.


The other big issue was the poverty among seniors who had left Mexico to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution or the Christo Revolt (where church groups battled the secular government). They had helped build the California economy by working in agriculture or in factories. Moreover, their children had served with distinction in World War II. But because they lacked papers, they were ineligible for state old age pensions.

So Msgr. O’Dwyer joined Mexican Americans and their allies in the unions and the Jewish community in pushing eligibility for long-term non-citizens. It was quite a legislative odyssey, and it is one of my favorite stories in “The Search for a Civic Voice.”

The bill ultimately became law. It passed by a Legislature without a single Latino member. Part of the credit goes to Brown, the Catholic governor, and John F. Kennedy, the Catholic president, whose administration helped pay the added costs.


Q: You also describe the importance of priests in mentoring and working with a number of Latino leaders, such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.


A: Yes, priests committed to the social gospel mentored Latino activists, starting with those active in their unions or concerned with farm labor. The clergy, particularly in the barrio, also worked closely with the Community Services Organization (CSO).

This was important on several levels. First, the clergy helped train indigenous neighborhood leaders. Second, this led to parishes becoming more engaged in the community. And third, the church provided protection against unfair attacks.


For example, in 1952, Cesar Chavez joined the CSO in San Jose and started to register Latinos to vote. Certain Anglos said he was a Communist. Members of the clergy rallied to the defense of Chavez and the CSO. Getting people involved in their community, the clergy said, was both patriotic and part of God’s desire for his people.


Q: In covering the Viva Kennedy campaign in 1960, you discussed the Latino reaction to the attacks on John F. Kennedy’s religion. Describe it for us.


A: Protestant clergy claimed that a Catholic was unfit to be president because he would take orders from the pope. This sent a powerful message to Latinos: It did not matter how rich and powerful you might become in America, if you were a Catholic you remained vulnerable.


Cesar Chavez recalled that “Every time that (Kennedy) got put down for being a Catholic this made points with the Mexicans who are all Catholics. (Latinos) looked at him as sort of a minority kind of person.”


Viva Kennedy was the first national Latino-oriented presidential campaign. Mexican Americans voted for Kennedy in a higher proportion than any other group. Kennedy, in turn, became the first president to appoint Latinos to top federal jobs.


Q: How has the face of immigration changed?


A: The sheer number of immigrants has grown to historic levels, with Latinos replacing Europeans as the largest segment. This has created some backlash, which parallels the social challenges faced by the Irish during their great migration.


The other change is that today a lot of white ethnics don’t have the same emotional identification with fellow Catholic immigrants as did their parents and grandparents. This is because of the distance to their families’ immigration story. It is also due to changes in the larger society. Catholics no longer feel the sting of discrimination, so there is less group cohesion, and old ethnics are now integrated into the larger white or Anglo society.


Q: How would you measure the political advances for Latinos over the last 75 years?


A: The advances are huge. The size of the Latino electorate is sufficient to command the respect of candidates and elected officials. Plus there are numerous organizations and Latinos serve at the highest levels of government.


Three of the last five Assembly Speakers have been Spanish-surnamed, for example, and Latinos have been elected mayor in Sacramento, San Jose and Los Angeles. Compare this to 1961, when the Legislature extended benefits to non-citizens. At that time there were no Latino legislators. Nor were there any big city mayors or even many city council members.


Despite these gains, life is hard for many new arrivals. There is a striking similarity between many of the old ethnic parishes of the 1930s and the new Latino parishes today. There is a strong sense of community forged by a common language, working class jobs, a shared faith, and the hope for a better future for their families.


Q: Deacon Jeffrey Burns, archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, lauded you for paying “special attention to the Catholic dimensions of (Latino politics), a dimension which is often neglected.” Why haven’t more scholars examined it?


A: That’s a great question. It is probably due to the secular orientation of the academy. I didn’t start my research looking for a religious angle. As I listened to people’s stories and examined the archival documents, it became clear that the church was important in people’s lives and that the church played a role in the larger search for a civic voice.

But I do think I was more open to the role of the faith community. I can still recall marching with Cesar Chavez in my youth. There was always an American flag, a Mexican flag and a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And it was quite common to see nuns and priests participating.


For the book I interviewed some very dedicated clergy in California and had the pleasure to spend time with the late Msgr. George G. Higgins at his home on the campus of The Catholic University of America. He was the U.S. bishops’ social justice man for some 50 years, and had strong ties to Latinos, labor and the church in California.


“The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics” (Regina Books) is available online from and Readers may contact Kenneth Burt at


The original article can be found at:

Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome