Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 7, 1993
Memphis Sojourn Civil Rights Always His Cause
By Rita McInerney
Father James Lyke, OFM, was 29 and already long involved in the struggle for civil rights when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
After Dr. Kings slaying, the young Franciscan asked his superiors to assign him to Memphis, a city teeming with racial unrest. They did so. At the time he was teaching religion at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio, and was involved in registering black voters in Cleveland.
When he came to Memphis in 1968 it was still a part of the Nashville diocese, which covered the entire state. He was named assistant pastor at St. Thomas Church, a mostly black parish less than two miles from the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed.
Nashville Bishop Joseph Durick, now retired, was bishop when the young priest became the first priest regularly assigned to Tennessee. Bishop Durick was rare for his time, a bishop who was not timid about pushing for civil rights.
He encouraged Father Lyke to participate in the struggle. He was an activist and yet a radical He wanted the movement to go ahead and did everything he could to achieve this, the bishop remembered.
He was not only a leader amount blacks, he was also highly respected by all the clergy of Memphis for the stand he took, Bishop Durick continued. He was beloved by white and black for his evenhanded way. He certainly kept going forward. There was no treading water.
When Memphis became a diocese in 1971 and Bishop Carroll T. Dozier was named first bishop, he promised Bishop Durick that he wouldnt let him down in pursuing the cause of civil rights. Thus Father Lyke was blessed to have two bishops who supported his involvement wholeheartedly, two bishops who didnt opt for non-participation as some bishops in the South chose to do.
The bishop and the young priest maintained their friendship through the years. Bishop Durick attended both the Atlanta installation and the funeral of the archbishop.
Another longtime friend and observer of Archbishop Lyke, Father Owen Campion was ordained for the Nashville diocese in 1966, the same year the archbishop took his vows as a Franciscan.
Father Campion, now associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, doesnt recall any resentment expressed by priests of the diocese when Bishop Durick came to a session of the priests senate and announced that the first black had been regularly assigned to Memphis.
It was novel enough at the time that the bishop felt he should let the priests know, Father Campion says.
It was a time when the system of apartheid in the South, with all its myths, prejudices and stereotypes, was everywhere you turned. Everything you did was in a segregated situation.
The Franciscan pastor at St. Thomas was frequently called upon to supply weekend Mass celebrants for other churches in Memphis. Once Father Lyke arrived, the pastor said he didnt want to hear anyone tell us you dont want Father Lyke, Father Campion recalled.
On one occasion when Father Lyke started preaching on the Gospel of the day as it concerned civil rights, a group of nuns rose and walked out of church in a body, Father Lyke later mentioned to Father Campion.
At. St. Thomas, Father Lyke found there were men in the parish who had applied to the diocesan seminary and been turned down because of race. The same occurred with women of the parish interested in religious life.
Along with the tension stirred by the King assassination, Memphis was further confronted by a number of strikes. One dividing the Catholic community was that of housekeeping employees at St. Josephs Hospital. The hospital was a Memphis institution that harkened back 125 years and was a source of pride for Memphis Catholics.
Of course Father Lyke befriended the strikers, Father Campion recalled.
The priest-journalist believes the fact that Father Lyke was a priest speaking in behalf of a peoples deepest yearnings was a marvelous contribution to the cause of social justice in a time when the Catholic church in general had a very bad response to the needs of African-Americans. But the church was not alone. Conditions were tolerated, overlooked, ignored by many people of good will.
Thorough much was accomplished over the next 25 years, Father Campion says, laws passed and constraints removed, there still is an enormously long road to walk. Yet the archbishop never succumbed to the same fatalism and indifference that other felt.
His commitment to the values of the civil rights movement were unchanged. He still had marvelous hope in the ability of human beings to overcome and to recognize faults within themselves and society and move from there to the correction of those faults.