Shannen Dee Williams (CNS photo/John C. Shetron, courtesy Villanova University)

Shortly after the founding of the U.S.-based National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) in 1968, the executive board members developed the following handshake exchange to greet one another at their regular meetings:

First sister: Do you have the strength, Sister?
Second sister: I do, if you do.
Together in union: Then, we’re strong!

In the decade following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, African American members of the nation’s historically black and white Catholic sisterhoods developed a plan of action to rid the U.S. church and wider society of the long-standing scourge of white supremacy.

Central to their campaign was the fight to preserve black female religious life and stop the mass closings of black Catholic schools, which had since the early 19th century produced multiple generations of black faithful, professionals and freedom fighters.

Like their black foremothers and forefathers in the church, NBSC leaders understood that racism was a fundamentally evil system that threatened not only the survival of black people, but also the freedom of all. These black sisters also believed that the Catholic Church — despite its egregious record of slavery, colonialism and segregation — could become a leading force in the fight to vanquish racism and the color line from the world.

“Education and religion are the first two subversive forces that an oppressed people can use to liberate themselves,” NBSC leaders declared in 1972. “Religion is the guts of all human life: It can suppress a people or free a nation.”

As I look ahead in the new year to the grave challenges facing our nation and world, I cannot help but be inspired by the moral courage and will of the generation of African American nuns who came of age politically in the late 1960s and 1970s.

When confronted with massive resistance to resurgent demands for racial justice within Catholic boundaries, this small cadre of women — many of whom were the descendants of Catholic slaves and had already desegregated a host of white Catholic institutions — declared themselves ready for the fight ahead and strong in the face of unholy discrimination.

Today, enduring structures of racism and the unyielding threat of white supremacy continue to jeopardize the survival of black communities and jeopardize the future of all humanity. From the school-to-prison pipeline and the plague of police violence to the ever-expanding racial wealth gap and the nation’s unconscionably high black maternal death rate, the crises threatening black people demand immediate and long-term action. Yet, the institutional church has been overwhelmingly silent.

As a leader of anti-racism workshops for Catholic communities, I am often asked what Catholics can do to become a leading force in the fight for racial justice. And my answer is always the same: become truly Catholic. To do that, the church must acknowledge its role in the contemporary crises.

Among many things, it must confront the truth about itself as the largest corporate slaveholder and Christian practitioner of segregation in the Americas and make reparation, financial and non-financial alike.

The church must also say with its words and actions that the lives of black and brown people fundamentally matter. It can do this by stopping the closings of active African American parishes, reinvesting in and expanding the black Catholic educational system, requiring the teaching of black and brown Catholic history in every Catholic school, endowing scholarships and fellowships for black and brown scholars at Catholic colleges, and broadening formal church leadership to include anti-racist women and members of the laity.

The church can also actively support campaigns fighting for the survival of black and brown people, especially those working to solve the enduring Flint water crisis, eliminate racial disparities in health care, mandate police accountability, and end mass incarceration and cash bail.

The blueprint for how to save ourselves from the destructive forces of white supremacy through historical truth-telling, reparation and an unconditional love of humanity has long been available to us. The question that remains is whether the institutional church will ever have the moral strength to use it.

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Williams is assistant professor of history at Villanova University. In 2018, she received the inaugural Sister Christine Schenk Award for Young Catholic Leadership from FutureChurch for using history to foster racial justice and reconciliation in religious congregations of women.