Black Catholicism and Black Lives Matter: The Process Towards Joining a Movement

Kevin C Winstead. Ethnic & Racial Studies. Volume 40, Issue 11, September 2017.

This ethnographic study examines how Black Catholics identify with and respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. The study follows several national Black Catholic gatherings since the death of Mike Brown. Using an adaptation of Scott Hunt, Robert D. Benford, and David Snow’s social movement frame analysis, I explore how Black Catholics define and construct the ongoing political issues within the Black Lives Matter movement. I discuss the conditions which contribute to Black Catholic’s participation, or lack thereof, in this social movement through the processes of diagnostic framing, prognostic framing, and motivational framing. I position the larger Black Catholic belief system within frame analysis, examine the relevance of the frames with the Black Catholic community, and analyse the frames’ timing with the Black Lives Matter cycle of protest. This research has implications for intragroup meaning making as Black Catholics start the process towards identifying with the Black Lives Matter social movement.

13 July 2012. George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Patrisse Cullors turned to social media to process her thoughts, re-posting Alicia Garza’s message of “black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter”, adding “black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. I am so done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely. #blacklivesmatter”. Four years later, after countless protests and hashtag memorials, a change has occurred in the discourse on policing and the prison industrial complex. On 7-10 September 2016 the de facto national Black Catholic representative body, the National Black Catholic Congress, held its first convening of Black Catholic leaders to devise a strategy and statement to respond to the ongoing struggle for Black lives.

This research examines the process by which the Black Catholic community came to identify with and respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, exploring how the narratives of the Black Lives Matter movement work to simplify and condense aspects of the current political environment in a manner intended to mobilize a constituency of an identity-based movement. I examine how the Black Catholic community responds to the movement for Black Lives and what their responses tell us about their social position.

In the sections that follow, I situate the micromobilization of Black Catholics within the Black Lives Matter movement; and examine the relevance of the Black Lives Matter collective action frames within the Black Catholic community. By micromobilization, I am referring to the interactive process that influences the frame alignment (Hunt, Benford, and Snow; Snow et al). In this context, I discuss the conditions which contribute to Black Catholics’ participation, or lack thereof, in this social movement. I find that this sub-community of African Americans was able to get collectively behind the Black Lives Matter movement only after they were challenged to interpret and align the movement’s frames with their middle-class Black Catholic politic.

Setting and Methods

This study draws from multiple data sources including three years of participant observation at three national gatherings of Black Catholics; content analysis of the groups’ websites during the same time frame; and content analysis of correspondences by and between black bishops, clergy, and members of regional organizations of Black Catholics.

From 2014 to 2016, I collected data from several national gatherings including the Archbishop Lyke Conference, the Fr. Clarence Rivers Institute, the 2016 Black Catholic Convocation of the Josephite Pastoral Center, and the 2016 Convening of Black Catholic leaders hosted by the National Black Catholic Congress. In addition to two annual convenings, in 2016 I attended a Black Catholic Convocation held in the Washington D.C. area and a holding of Black Catholic leaders. At each of the gatherings, I acquired acceptance into each space as an African-American scholar concerned with the well-being of Black Catholics, because of an eight-year ongoing emulsive relationship within Black Catholic communities and events. Field notes were taken and recorded within 24 hours. Approximately 300 hours were spent in the field, yielding 200 pages of field notes.

I conducted a content analysis of the websites of each of the convenings and collected letters and emails written by black bishops, clergy, and members of regional organizations for Black Catholics. Approximately 300 pages of documents were collected from meetings (memos, newsletters, fliers, and speeches). My analysis keyed on conversations surrounding various sites of civic unrest in addition to organized responses taken by Black Catholic officials.

Framing Alignment Process and Micromobilization

Collective action frames are rooted in Goffman’s concept of frameworks. Frames are constructions of social phenomenon used to organize experience for the purpose of structuring an individual’s perception of society. For collective action, frames are a set of action-oriented ideas that galvanize social activities. Here social movement actors are in a continuous process of creating meaning for constituents, antagonists, and observers to maintain efforts towards social justice. As such, the frame alignment process becomes the connection of an individual to a social movement organization (Benford and Snow). Through micromobilization or the everyday, interpersonal interactions of social movement organization members, the frame alignment is maintained (McAdam). Whether or not the frame alignment persists influences if movement actors remain active participants in the social action. Their rationalization of participation, or lack thereof, is referred to as vocabulary of motives (Benford; Mills). For this study, I am utilizing the frame alignment process to identify the linkage of a sub-community to the culture of a social movement by analysing the micromobilization of the Black Catholic community.

Black Catholicism and the Movement for Black Catholic Rights

The relationship between African Americans and the Roman Catholic Church has been one of imposition since the times of slavery. Shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the American Catholic Church faced the challenge of establishing a national policy for the evangelization and ministry of African Americans, both free and the formerly enslaved. During the late 1800s, it was the position of the Roman Curia that the American Roman Catholic Church provide an independent diocese to oversee the development of independent African-American churches, priests, and missionary undertakings. However, the American Catholic Church rejected Rome’s directive. Instead, the American bishops agreed that the African-American population needed pastoral oversight in light of the success of Protestant churches’ efforts to evangelize African Americans and requested European missionaries, asking, “through the bowels of [the] mercy of … God that as many as could would devote their strength, their time, and their whole being” to the care of blacks (Davis, 120). The treatment of Black Catholics as passive recipients of missionary projects continued until the Black Catholic Movement of the 1960s.

The act of collective insurgency can provide a community with a distinct culture that connects individuals to each other and to ideology across time. Many of the founding members of the Black Catholic Rights movement were involved in counter-insurgency work in the Civil Rights movement. When Dr Martin Luther King, Jr put his national call out for supporters during the second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; six Roman Catholic nuns, white and black, became the first responders to his call including Sister Antona Ebo, who became the first African-American nun to join the march (Hart; PBS). She was followed by Barbara Moore (formerly known as Sister Ann Benedict), who travelled to Selma from Kansas City on 12 March 1965 (both subsequently became founding members of the National Black Sisters Conference).

For these and many other Black Catholics, their participation in high-risk activism during the Civil Rights movement exposed them to the ideology, style, and cultures of that movement, which allowed them to appropriate these resources for their own reasons. These leader-activists were committed to forming a national Black Catholic identity in the style of 1960s Black Nationalism. In addition to holding on to the “spirit” of the movement, throughout the 1980s the Black Catholic Movement had the ability to maintain constant numbers despite organizational instability among the leadership of National Black Catholic organizations such as the National Office of Black Catholic Administrators and the National Office of Black Catholics evident by the significant membership turnout for national events (Davis and Rowe).


Social movement frames serve in one of three functions: diagnosing, prognosing, or motivating (Benford and Snow; Snow et al). People at each of the gatherings studied participated in the frame alignment process, negotiating the frames of the Black Lives Movement. I discerned four socially reconstructed frames across the various participants at each gathering and communication: (1) How dire the situation for African Americans has become; (2) How urgent the problem for African Americans is; (3) Frames of hope and the likelihood for change and (4) What frames the Catholic obligation for justice and change. Black Catholics were not necessarily responsible for the genesis of these frames, but they were responsible for interpretation within their particular Black Catholic sensibilities.

Diagnostic Framing: The Seriousness of the Problem

Diagnostic frames articulate the need for change. For Black Catholics, the mobilization task of problem identification was a non-issue as they accepted the notion following the death of Trayvon Martin in 26 February 2012 that there was a disparity in the criminal justice system is treatment of African Americans compared to phenotypically white bodies. Black Catholic priests, nuns, and lay speakers were frequently writing and speaking on the subject. Rev. Bryan Massingale, speaking during a talk at a Catholic university, stated:

So African-Americans tell stories such as when I tell my students when I got my driver’s license. Instead of my parents deciding to congratulate me, they sat me down and explained to me how I had to behave if I were ever pulled over by a cop. They told me whenever you are pulled over by a cop you keep your hands on the steering wheel where they can see you. Do not move to get your wallet until they tell you to. Whatever they say you do. You do not get out of the car until they tell you to. You respond to every question with “yes sir”. You agree. You submit. You are obedient … because there is no margin for error. I asked my white friends if they ever heard that lecture … none of them ever heard that lecture.

However, task identification is not enough for mobilization. It took three years (July 2013 to September 2016) after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for national Black Catholic leadership to meet and decide on an actionable plan. This is despite members of the East St. Louis group, who travelled to join the 2015 Lyke Conference, speaking about the significance of the mass shooting in South Carolina to their understanding of the rising racial tensions in the United States.

Within a four-month period the following events happened: 4 April 2015, an unarmed Walter Scott is filmed being shot, killed, and framed by Officer Michael Slager. 17 June Dylan Roof kills nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Church. 18 June the state and U.S. flags are lowered to half-staff. The Confederate flag cannot be lowered without Legislative approval. 26 June President Barack Obama delivers the eulogy, singing “Amazing Grace”. 10 July 2015, the Confederate flag is removed in a ceremony located at the South Carolina statehouse.

President Obama’s eulogy of the Emanuel African Methodist Church shooting victims occurred during the lunch break of the 2015 Lyke Conference and provided the necessary vocabulary of motives to appropriately galvanize energy for action. The conference organizers asked the building managers to screen the eulogy on two large presentation screens on either end of the lunchroom. Immediately, the people at the meeting fell silent and arranged their chairs towards the screens. As the President gave his eulogy to the African Methodist Episcopal audience, the Catholic community began to call-and-response towards the display screen. When the President began singing “Amazing Grace”, the entire conference started singing along with him. The emotion of the room was as raw as if they were present in South Carolina for the service. In the break session after the extended lunch break, I observed conference participants processing the experience. One elderly black woman cried out, “If my child is not safe at church then they are not safe anywhere … What are we gonna do?” The consensus nods around the room prompted another elderly man to identify himself as someone who participated in collective action during the 1960s saying, “It hurts me everything we were fighting for has now become our kids’ fight … What hurts more is that I can’t keep you safe.”

Both sentiments marked a sudden realization of what was at stake. There is research to illustrate the association African-American working- and middle-class people have between class status and the sense of security (Banner-Haley; Ciabattari; Haynes; Sanchez, Lang, and Dhavale). However, for the people of the conference, there was a severing of this association, producing the appropriate sense of urgency for mobilization. Black Catholics were realizing collectively that black people beyond their community needed more from them politically at this moment and their status quo was insufficient.

Prognostic Framing: Hope and a Pathway for Change

Prognostic frames provide strategies or solutions to the diagnosed problem. The Black Lives Matter movement had to respond a year later to the death of Alton Sterling (5 July 2016) and Philando Castile (6 July 2016). Again the 2016 Lyke Conference coincided with national tragedy – with the conference beginning on 5 July, the day of Alton Sterling’s death. With the events of 2015 on their minds the theme of the conference was “Black Catholics: Fully Functional, Fully Committed” – adapted from Sr Thea Bowman’s 1989 address to the United States Catholic Bishops Conference, which was a call for the Catholic hierarchy to recognize the Black Catholic community as a fully autonomous, functioning, and capable community similar to how the Church identifies the Irish Catholic (or any white European) community.

While many young adults and teenagers attended the previous conference, at this meeting, they voiced their frustrations with the lack of action to address the violence against black bodies. On 6 July after hearing of Philando Castile’s death, they asked for time to be heard before the entire conference. After expressing their frustrations and asking for leadership, they invited the assembly to stand in solidarity with them as they took a protest picture. Close to 200 people, from teenagers to those in their early 90s, stood together with fists raised. In the front row signs ranged from “Say Something”; “Black Catholics in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter”; “The Lord said I will heal their land”; to “#AltonSterling PhilandoCastile”. One sign stated: “Where are our Bishops?”

On the Lyke Conference website and social media, the solidarity picture was unprofessionally photoshopped with the sign “Where are our Bishops?” replaced with white and black hands embracing in solidarity. However, the original picture made it onto the pages of a few national Catholic magazines and websites. The conflict speaks to framing hazards that occur when diagnosing and prognostic frames produce a level of urgency and action that creates a resistance towards a movement’s goal attainment. While some among the conference wanted to damper the messaging because of the criticisms implicating the Catholic Church hierarchy, the majority of the members within the space agreed with the framing.

On 20 July one of the thirteen U.S. Black Catholic bishops wrote an essay responding to the call for episcopal leadership on the issues facing black bodies. Bishop Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D. S.T.D, selectively identified issues within Black Lives Matter that are in agreement with his Catholic politics. It is of note that the bishop does not denounce movement agenda items that do not align within his politic creating space for strategic frame alignment. In his essay Bishop Braxton writes:

Moral Leadership in Action: We need this not only from the sitting and future President of the United States. We need it from every citizen. We need it from law enforcement, gun legislation supporters, protest groups, the media, civic and religious leaders, including the Catholic Church, educators, mental health specialists, businesses, coaches, parents and extended families and parish communities. To provide moral leadership in action, we must all think, listen, learn, pray, and act in order to exercise what Robert K. Greenleaf has aptly called “servant leadership”.

Motivational Framing: Calling Upon the Ancestors

The attention from the young Lyke Conference participants, Braxton’s letter, and ongoing national tensions caused the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to convene a task force to address the Black Lives Matter movement. Because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were formulating a response without its input, the National Black Catholic Congress, convened Black Catholic leaders in September of 2016, producing a set of motivational frames for the larger Catholic church to move them towards action. Motivational frames are often new social constructions (Snow and Benford). However, in this sub-culture space, motivational frames were channeled through black theological stories and Black Catholic history to create a moral obligation to act.

One of the priests representing a prominent African-American Catholic academic unit recounted the story of Sister Antona Ebo. With a consensus nod from the audience the priest asked, “How can we not stand up with these young people when our living ancestors did the same for us?”

The recounting of prominent black nuns also occurred at the Lyke conference where books and images of Sister Thea Bowman were positioned throughout the conference, including on the cover of books, on small trinkets, and within the conference book. A priest giving the opening keynote address of the 2016 Lyke Conference presented a 1989 archive video of Thea Bowman who died in 1990 from cancer. In the video, Bowman, who was already terminally diagnosed and suffering from chemotherapy, decided to sing for kids at a school which knowingly would be her last time in public. The priest ended the video after Bowman’s song and gave a similar charge to the audience as that of the one using Antona Ebo:

We call ourselves Catholics, but we are no church … We have to listen to the children. We have to follow in the path of our ancestors. We must stand up for our people a proclaim to the world we are fully functioning, and fully committed.


Cultural sociologist Penny Edgell argues that sociologists of religion are in a unique position to understand the current political landscape, particularly if we begin our examination of religion with the understanding of religious identity within the matrix of race, class, and gender. My research attempts to illustrate the process by which this community of Black Catholics resolves the at times conflicting and harmonious intersecting frames generated by identity and social movements. In this case, I used Black Catholic theology and history to navigate the reasoning process to create buy-in for a group of African Americans who felt simultaneously involved and not with the greater black political landscape. Further research is needed to understand Black Catholics’ continued involvement in Black Lives Matter and various black religious groups’ particular orientation to Black Lives Matter and current Black Social Movements.