Speaking to the Catholic Sun in 2015, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello recalls marching for civil rights in Alabama in 1965. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
By Katherine Long | Editor
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 below.]
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.
CS: He had gone to a previous march, correct?
BTC: Yes. The first Sunday in March was the first Edmund Pettus Bridge incident. The day that happened he asked permission to go to Selma. It was three or four days later before he got there. And then he came home and organized our event, but he was there for six or eight days after the first confrontation.
CS: So when he returned and started organizing this group, you were among the group who was moved to action to go with him.
BTC: There were eventually 44 of us who flew by chartered Mohawk aircraft to Montgomery. On the way down we were diverted because of bad weather. That had an interesting consequence [later], but we’ll talk about that in a moment.
There were 44 of us. There were nine priests aboard. Father Don Bauer was already there, so there were ten of us in the final day of the march into Montgomery. There were a couple of sisters: Sister Robert Joseph was a Sister of St. Joseph [of Carondelet] — her kids called her Bobby Jo — and Sister John Joseph, a Franciscan, who was known to everybody as JJ — maybe their names say something about who they were and what they were — they were aboard. There were a couple of ministers: Rev. Emory Proctor from AME Zion Church [in Syracuse] was there, and I think Alan Vermilye, who was an associate at either Grace Episcopal or Trinity Episcopal at the time [Editor’s note: Rev. Vermilye was assistant rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Syracuse.].
CS: There were some lay folks with you as well?
BTC: Oh yes. Jerry Berrigan was very prominent among them. Unfortunately most of the people aboard that plane are dead today. There aren’t many of us left.
CS: Can you talk about why you felt moved to get on that plane?
BTC: After the first Pettus Bridge incident, the Southern [Christian] Leadership Conference called Martin Luther King, who was in Atlanta, and he issued a plea for a “ministers march,” he called it. He tried to do it rather quickly and that didn’t work, but the movement grew and I think that was some of what prompted Father Brady to try to organize some of us. Three of us who lived with him were among the 10.
And I wanted to be there. After that first Sunday in March, the dreadful experience at the bridge, there were rallies all through our diocese. [In Syracuse,] there was a march from Columbus Circle over to City Hall. Dr. Abe Halpern, who was the commissioner of health at the time, who had been in Selma doing medical service, was the speaker at that one. There were about 2,000 people there. A couple of days later in Binghamton, 2,500 people gathered and Msgr. Frank Harrison, who was the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church there, was the principal speaker at that event. The one in Utica topped all of them — there were over 4,000 people at that event. Father John Stack, who was a chaplain at one of the mental hospitals in Utica, was the principal speaker there. They were ecumenical movements, or maybe interreligious even, but it’s interesting that in those two instances it was a priest who was called upon to be the keynoter.
There was a lot of agitation. The nation was disturbed. President Johnson drafted a bill quite quickly after that first Sunday in March about voting rights. The thrust of these convenings seemed to be, Get our Congresspeople — our senators and our congressmen — on board with this voting bill. People were urged to write to their congressmen, to call them. It was an exciting couple of weeks.
CS: So let’s go out to that airfield in Utica. There’s 44 of you getting ready to board this plane. What are you thinking? What are you hoping — by being there, by lending your voice to this — what are you hoping to achieve while you’re there?
BTC: Just be a witness, a presence. There wasn’t a lot I could do in terms of really changing things except be one of the crowd that is urging change.
CS: Were you frightened at all, given what had happened at previous events?
BTC: I don’t think I was. I don’t recall being frightened. As the march moved into Montgomery, there were some uncomfortable kinds of situations. The march was terribly well-organized and there were guardpeople all along the way. We were told, “Be quiet, talk among yourselves, but don’t start anything. Just march.”
As we went down the street, every driveway we came to would have a pickup truck parked in it with the engine running and the headlights on. We went by a Catholic school staffed by sisters and the pupils were all white and they did not like our presence.
As we got closer to the city, we went by the Jefferson Davis Hotel and it had a driveway in front that was covered and on the roof there was a balcony and the balcony was filled with people. As we were marching by there, Emory Proctor, the pastor of AME Zion, took the Catholic Interracial Council sign and taunted them with it. It was a precious, precious moment.
We went all the way to the courthouse and Martin Luther King spoke. It was his famous speech: “How long? Not long. How long? Not long.”
All the way, within a block of the march area you could see federal troops at ready if there was to be any disturbance. It was a militarized kind of environment.
Thank God the weather was good. We didn’t have a whole lot to eat. Msgr. Brady kept passing around peanut butter sandwiches and we had mason jars of water. That was our nourishment en route.
CS: Who were you marching with? Who was next to you?
BTC: Brady. [Msgr.] Charlie Fahey. Msgr. Ed Hayes. Berrigan. Mary Klein. Proctor. Brady was hovering over our little group constantly, being sure that we were together.
CS: Had you ever taken part in — obviously not on this scale — but had you taken part in any kind of political action like this before?
BTC: The Catholic Interracial Council, as I said, wasn’t terribly into political action. That would change. When we came back from Selma, the question we constantly got was, “Well, what are you going to do about our situation locally?”
CS: Which was?
BTC: Our situation locally at that time was Niagara Mohawk. The Congress for Racial Equality had been in conversation with Niagara Mohawk about their hiring policies. And because they were a public kind of company CORE felt that they should be pace-setters. CORE was far more aggressive than the Catholic Interracial Council. They had planned a demonstration on Holy Saturday morning at the NiMo building…. They were going to put some cars in the driveway there and chain people to the cars so they couldn’t be moved. On Good Friday, all of the Catholic Interracial Council crowd met at the Bishop Foery Foundation at a meeting that went on until 11 or 11:30 at night. And the issue was, are we going to join CORE tomorrow morning in this demonstration or not? Again, in response to the question, “Ok you guys, what are you going to do about the local situation?” It really came to no conclusion. Finally, I think it was about 11 o’clock, Father Brady said, “Tomorrow morning, I will be at Niagara Mohawk and if any of you care to join me, please feel free.”
I found it very easy to march in Montgomery, Alabama. I found it very difficult to march in Syracuse. And no, I wasn’t there Holy Saturday morning. Only one priest showed up with Brady, and that was Father Don Bauer.
We did some demonstrations at the county courthouse, the jail. I can’t remember who it was who was in prison [Editor’s note: Roger Knapp had been arrested in connection to a Niagara Mohawk demonstration], but we kept an around-the-clock vigil. I took part in that at 3 o’clock in the morning so I wouldn’t be seen. So, I didn’t totally have the courage of my convictions. As I said, I found it easy to march in Montgomery; I found it difficult to march in Syracuse.
CS: And why do you think that was?
BTC: I didn’t know anybody in Montgomery. Nobody in Montgomery knew me.
CS: The anonymity of the big crowd.
CS: Was it unusual for a cleric to be involved in a movement like this?
BTC: There had been some situations here in Syracuse. At one point, there was a movement to put the bus terminal over on Adams Street at the corner of Townsend. It would have been a disaster. There were lots of demonstrations on that site. Some of our priests were involved; I walked over there as well. I’m not sure if that was before or after Montgomery, but Father Tom McLaughlin was very involved in that demonstration.
There was all kind of dialogue and discussing going on within the city. I remember we had an all-day workshop at University College one Saturday. Tom McLaughlin was in a small group discussion — where you gathered to share ignorance — and elect a chairman and a recorder and he ended up being recorder. When it came time for his report at the end of the meeting, he said, “I’m not really sure what we said in our small group, but this is what we should have said.” And about three minutes — nailed it. So there was involvement, a lot of involvement.
CS: Going back to the NiMo action — did it end up bearing fruit?
BTC: Yes it did. Marshall Nelson, who was one of Msgr. Brady’s protégés, was eventually hired at NiMo and he became director of personnel, not just for Syracuse but for this whole eastern area of Niagara Mohawk. He was the one who hired and fired people. And through his influence and his position and his power, not a few black people were [hired]. Eventually. It didn’t happen all at once, and it came at great struggle and great pain, but it happened.
CS: You have already mentioned that you were superintendent of Catholic schools at the time. How did your experience in Selma, your experience with Father Brady influence what you did from that office?
BTC: The public schools were having serious integration problems in those days. I remember a meeting at Prescott School one night. When the Board of Ed met about integration or desegregation, if it was a public meeting, I was inclined to be there and was even invited to some that weren’t public meetings. One night at Prescott School I remember particularly when the public school authorities were talking about bussing for integration. There was great opposition from some of the North side people. One parent stood up and said, “Well, before you ever bus my child, I will transfer into a Catholic school.” At which point, with no authority whatsoever, I said, “The Catholic schools will not accept transfers from the Syracuse public schools. If there are changes of residence from out of town or something like that, we’d be interested in accepting people, but won’t, for the present time at least, accept any transfers.” A couple of days later I got approval for that bold statement. But we were deeply involved.
Frank Barry, who was the superintendent of public schools at the time, had a dream, what he called the campus plan. He was going to build one large educational campus where all the city schools would be concentrated. Everybody would be bussed in. As the plan developed there was the inclusion of a Catholic school in that complex. Of course it never came to be. This was a time when shared time was kind of a popular concept — where a kid from Cathedral for example could walk over to Central for a chemistry class that Cathedral didn’t teach. It was an era of educational ecumenism as well as religious ecumenism.
Let me get back to Selma. After the march, we were walking as a group of us and Sister Robert Joseph approached a Coke machine in front of a gas station and just as she got ready to put her dime in — it was only a dime in those days — a hand came over the coin slot and said, “It’s out of order.”
I mentioned that the plane was diverted on the way down and because of that we couldn’t take off at the hour that we had scheduled to start back home because the pilots hadn’t been idle for enough time and it was 11 or 11:30 before we could depart. We’re now at 3 in the afternoon. Msgr. Fahey and Msgr. Hayes and Mgsr. Brady and I decided we’d try to find somewhere to put our feet up for a little while. There was a Holiday Inn there, so we got in line and came to the desk and were told that there were no vacancies. The couple behind us, who happened to be white Southerners — there was a vacancy for them, but not for us.
So we got a cab and we went outside the city a little bit and found a cheap motel and were accepted there and put ourselves up for three or four hours. We started back to the airport probably about 7:30 or 8 o’clock. We were on the highway hitchhiking — with Roman collars on — and a car coming down the highway screeched to a halt. The driver was a local Catholic pastor who told us we were absolutely insane being out there on that highway that night. In fact, just down the road from where we were, [marcher] Viola Liuzzo from Detroit was killed that night [by] a white activist.
So the good priest took us to the airport and our group and some other groups were gathered out on the lawn in front of the airport, it was a very balmy March night. It was gorgeous in Montgomery. And we had a prayer meeting and a songfest — it was really a community of communities who came together and we were just celebrating. It was a wonderful experience.
CS: So, 50 years on, do you think that you had an impact? Did the feeling you brought home from Selma translate into change here in Syracuse?
BTC: Barack Obama last week said that the march hasn’t reached Montgomery yet. It still goes on. I’m sure there’s been progress, but there’s still a long, long way to go. Racism is perhaps more subtle than it was in those days, but it’s still very much a part of our whole milieu. I don’t think it’s over. I think much of the opposition to the president comes from the fact of his race.
CS: So what do we do about that? We being Americans, we being Catholics?
BTC: I don’t think any one of us is going to change the world, but I think in our own personal lives we need to examine our own prejudices, and if we can’t admit that we have them, that’s the beginning of our problem. I think all we can do is what we can do in our own little world. But if enough of us do it — much like the Christophers, light one candle and illuminate a stadium if you get enough people doing it.