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Spring Hill Jesuit Fought the KKK, Worked for Civil Rights in Alabama

January 20, 2014 — As the nation commemorates the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Jesuits highlight another civil rights advocate who worked closely with Dr. King. Jesuit Father Albert Foley fought tirelessly for civil rights in the 1940s in Alabama, the epicenter of the civil rights struggle. 

Fr. Foley’s work began in 1943 at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., when, as a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach the class “Migration, Immigration, and Race”. His research, which included interviewing local black Catholics, opened his eyes: Segregation was sinful. 

He looked to the church fathers and social justice teachings to discern what should be done and took action against social inequality, which almost immediately got him into trouble. Mobile Bishop Thomas Toolen warned him to stay away from the issue, eventually insisting on Fr. Foley’s reassignment away from Spring Hill. Fr. Foley later returned to the college as a sociology professor and served as chairman of both the Mobile chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations and the Alabama Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission. In addition, he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries of the civil rights movement. 

In 1956, Fr. Foley authored two model ordinances for Mobile: one would ban police from KKK membership and the other would ban “intimidation by exhibit,” such as cross burning. In response, the Klan ran an advertisement denouncing Fr. Foley as a “man of large profession and small deeds, a communist … who wants to write new city ordinances.” Fr. Foley appealed to the FBI, but when the FBI didn’t respond, Fr. Foley took matters into his own hands to expose the Klan. 

He bought a list of license plate numbers from the state and paid people to park outside Klan meetings and record the license numbers of the mask-wearing attendees. This might have ended badly, as one night he and other observers were followed. No one got hurt, however, and Fr. Foley soon knew who was active in what he called the “dunce cap and bedsheet brigade.” He paid informants to infiltrate KKK meetings and even rented the apartment above Mobile’s “imperial wizard,” Elmo Barnard. 

One January night in 1957, the Klan retaliated. They arrived on Spring Hill’s campus in a caravan of cars. Before the robed men could erect their cross, however, Spring Hill students raised an alarm and poured out of nearby dorms to chase them away. 

Fr. Foley continued to teach at Spring Hill and led workshops on social justice issues until his death in 1990. [Source: U.S. Catholic]


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