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Taking the Knee for the Disinherited – An Essay by Fr Robert O’Neil MHM Part 2/3

The First Black Major League Baseball Player in the 20th Century:

Jackie Robinson was a Black baseball player admired and loved by many of his generation, Black and White. But there was sadness in his life that most of his admirers were unaware of. He wrote in his 1972 memoir, I Never had it made: An Autobiography, that in September 1947 he was a black first baseman playing in the first televised baseball World Series, “the Black grandson of a slave, the son of a Black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people,” standing in Yankee Stadium about to hear the national anthem. He continued: “It should have been a glorious moment for me as the…stirring words poured from the stands.” But in 1972 he admitted that “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a Black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”  (New York Times, Jon Meacham, “I am a Black Man in a White World”, August 2, 2020)

Segregation and the Catholic Church:

Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871-1960 by Stephen Ochs, 1991.

In a Los Angeles Times review of Desegregating the Altar, Huston Horn wrote that “in the late 19th century the chances of a black man becoming a Roman Catholic Priest were right up there with a rich man’s getting into heaven.” This was not the view of the Josephites who began as a province of the Mill Hill Missionaries. It was “the lonely struggle these few Josephites undertook to foster equality at the altar which is the thrust of Ochs’ history.”

John Slattery was an American Mill Hill Missionary who studied at St Joseph’s College. He was ordained for the new mission Herbert Vaughan accepted to the Black population in the United States. He later became Provincial and a champion for racial equality. It was he who engineered the ordination of the first Black men in the United States. Later as leader of the independent Josephites he became embittered and left the Church, married and wrote  that ” there is no hope of reforming the Catholic Church” about racism. “The stand of the Catholic Church towards the negro is sheer dishonesty”

But it was the specialized ministry to Blacks of the missionaries from Mill Hill and the Josephites, including Slattery that “eventually brought in a better day.”

The Disinherited are all those who in life stand with their backs against the wall:

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, was first published in 1949. The forward calls him a “Black prophet-mystic” Thurman’s lifelong work was to present the Gospel as “manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.” It is an “important and influential book whose message helped shape the civil rights movement and changed our nation’s history forever.”

In 1935 Thurman was chairman of a delegation of students from the United States to a meeting of students from India, Burma and Ceylon. The principal of the Law College at the University in Colombo invited him to his office for coffee. They met for five hours. The principal, a Hindu, did not understand why Thurman was there, “standing deep within the Christian faith”, when his people had suffered so much at the hands of Christians. He recalled John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” who made his money in the slave trade and a famous British slave ship name “Jesus”, and down through history to the conditions of that time in the American south for Black people. “I am a Hindu…I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position?”

Thurman’s response can be found in years of reflection and in his writings. He found it in an examination of “the religion of Jesus against the background of his own age and people” and of the “content of his teaching with reference to the disinherited and underprivileged.”

Thurman wrote that the masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” He draws on the life of Jesus and the Jewish minority of which he was part and their attitude towards Rome. “This is the position of the disinherited of every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social and economic life?” He writes of the disinherited surviving before power either in fear, or deception and hypocrisy—“fooling the strong”—or hatred bred in bitterness. Thurman’s final chapter is about love and how Jesus lived it in his own environment.


“What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall?…The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God”.

Thurman’s book concludes: when people look into the face of Jesus, “they see etched the glory of their own possibilities, and their hearts whisper, “Thank you, and thank God.””

Fr Robert O’Neil mhm

Hartsdale, New York

August 11, 2020