Mercyhurst Magazine Fall 2020

Sister Carolyn Herrmann and Mercyhurst’s commitment to racial justice

By Chris Magoc, Ph.D., and Sister Lisa Mary McCartney, RSM, Ph.D.

For many white Americans, the extraordinary movement for racial and economic justice has inspired an unprecedented reckoning with four centuries of violent, systemic racism. It has also evoked memories of America’s most recent and heralded civil rights movement of the 1960s, when many white citizens joined the African American-led struggle for freedom and equality. The Mercyhurst University community recalls with particular reverence the leadership of Sister Carolyn Herrmann, president of what was then Mercyhurst College. With deep roots in the Catholic Worker movement extending to her graduate study at Notre Dame, Sister Carolyn championed the engagement of the Mercyhurst community on issues of social justice throughout her tenure as president (1963-1972). Her work on civil rights is exemplified by two occasions, the first of which is reflected in her “Homily,” delivered prior to a “Bible Vigil for Selma,” held March 11, 1965. Four days earlier, John Lewis and dozens of other voting rights activists were savagely beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in the event enshrined as “Bloody Sunday.”Two days later in a subsequent march, Reverend James Reeb, a U.S. Army veteran and Unitarian minister, was brutally beaten on the streets of Selma. That evening as Rev. Reeb lay dying, Sister Carolyn, along with sociology professor Judith Wieczorek, led 200 students in a prayer vigil that began in the Mercyhurst dining hall. “We are so comfortable, so privileged, so unaware of what it means to

suffer insults and indignities,” Sister Carolyn declared with words that ring poignantly true today. So also does her appeal to “unite in prayer and charity to prove our solidarity with our brothers in chains,” and for the redemption of fellow Americans acting “in error.” Led by Sister Carolyn and singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” the group marched through Mercyhurst’s iconic gates in solidarity with the struggle in Selma. On March 14, faculty and students joined hundreds of Erie citizens in a 2.5-mile sympathy march in downtown Erie through rain and snow. Days later, faculty members Michael Cashore and John Lincourt boarded the local NAACP-organized bus of 26 Erie citizens who traveled to Alabama for the final 3-mile leg of the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Lincourt and Erie reporter Ron Wasielewski were among those who were spat upon as the throng of several thousand marched toward the state capitol in Montgomery, where they heard these immortal words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” School revealed longstanding issues of systemic racism in the Erie School District—not the least of which was the fact that just 10 of 1,658 district employees were African American. The Pennsylvania State Education Association sanctioned the district for dragging its feet in addressing issues of discrimination and segregation. But the arc does not bend on its own. In April 1968, an uprising at Academy High

As historian Roy Strausbaugh has recounted, on April 25, 1969, at the direction of Sister Carolyn, Dr. Bill Bryan, Mercyhurst Director of Education, and professor Bob Sturm notified the superintendent that until a serious plan was developed to merit the lifting of PSEA sanctions, Mercyhurst would no longer send its student teachers to Erie city schools. Sister Carolyn, along with trustee Mace Levin and other members of the Mercyhurst community, then joined a demonstration outside the district offices demanding change. Soon thereafter, Dr. Bryan was leading the Urban Coalition Task Force that developed the district’s anti- discrimination plan. Proud of this legacy, shaken but inspired by the events of 2020, and grounded in the long history of the Sisters of Mercy confronting prejudice and bigotry, Mercyhurst is recommitting itself to the work of advancing a more just society, beginning here in our own community.

Chris Magoc

Sister Lisa Mary McCartney, RSM

Chris Magoc is a Professor of History at Mercyhurst University. Sister Lisa Mary McCartney is a retired Professor of English and Mission Officer at Mercyhurst.

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