Bishop Thomas Costello recalls marching, advocating for civil rights
On March 7, 1965, hundreds gathered in Selma, Ala., to march to Montgomery in support of civil and voting rights. That day came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” when marchers were violently attacked by law enforcement at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Rev. Martin Luther King led a second march to the bridge two days later. A third march began March 21, swelling to include some 25,000 people by the time it reached Montgomery’s Capitol March 25.
Among those thousands in Montgomery was a young priest from Syracuse, Father Thomas Costello.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Costello recently spoke with the Sun about that day 50 years ago and more.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity. Watch a video of the interview in its entirety at thecatholicsun.com.]
Catholic Sun: Take us back to 1965. What was it like here in Syracuse? Where were you in your ministry? What was it like here in the United States?
Bishop Thomas Costello: In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty and made a lot of money available for people who would wage the war. Syracuse was in the action.
There was already a Mayor’s Conference for Youth that Mayor Bill Walsh had established, and with that framework, that organization, already in place, Syracuse was very well prepared to apply for federal funds, and indeed they were funded. It was called the Mayor’s Commission for Youth. Eventually it became the Crusade for Opportunity and today we call it PEACE, Inc.
Interestingly, at the same time, Syracuse University made application for a grant and received it. Their program was called the Community Action Training Center. What they were trying to do was to train people to work in poverty [poor] areas to mobilize the people. One of the consultants to the university program was Saul Alinsky from Chicago.
I was in a very curious position. For the diocese, I was superintendent of schools. And those were good days for schools. In ‘63, we had opened Rome Catholic and Bishop Ludden and Binghamton Catholic. In ‘65 we opened Bishop Grimes. So we were at our peak, really. Because of my position with the diocese, I was involved in community programs and, interestingly, I was the only person who was on the Board of Directors of these two federally funded programs. Which was a very interesting conflict for me, frankly.
So we were involved in the War on Poverty. The Church was involved. Of course, Msgr. [Charles] Brady had been working in the inner city since 1946 and, God bless him, he was our salvation.
CS: Can you talk about Msgr. Brady a little bit, for those who might not be familiar with him?
BTC: He was ordained in 1930. He was stationed at St. John’s in Utica then Most Holy Rosary here in Syracuse. He volunteered for [military] chaplaincy and was accepted. By luck, the unit to which he was assigned was a medical unit in the South Pacific, and it just happened that the vast majority, if not all of, the members of that unit were black. I’m sure he had awarenesses before that, but this really focused him. When he came home and the war was over, he asked Bishop Foery for permission to work in the inner city. He was called a city missioner. Bishop Foery, God bless him, gave him that permission.
So he began working among the poor people in the 15th ward, as it was known then. It has since become an Urban Renewal area and it’s pretty vacant over there now, but he was on the streets and in people’s homes.
His establishment was called the Bishop Foery Foundation, much to Bishop Foery’s dismay. It was on Forman Avenue. He just tried to bring the people together. He had some education programs for the children.
Father [David] Norcott was already the pastor at St. Joseph’s French Church, which was right over there in that neighborhood, and Father Norcott had been doing some work himself among the indiginous people. But Brady and Norcott made a great team.
Msgr. Brady established what he called a Catholic Interracial Council, which was made up of all kinds of people who just had an interest in what he was doing. They were educational, they were an advocacy agency, but they were not directly involved in protests or demonstrations. That changed after Selma, but we’ll talk about that a little later.
He was dedicated to advancing minority people’s positions in the community — and not just blacks; he was working with Puerto Ricans and Hispanics as well, but basically the black community.
I lived with him at 672 [West Onondaga Street], which was a diocesan residence.
I was in Montgomery the last day of the march, the 25th of March, 1965, because of him.