Former Labor Secretary Broke Barriers With Faith
Published: May 3, 2007
ATLANTA—Alexis Herman, former U.S. Labor Secretary, speaking at St. Anthony’s Church challenged listeners to “get out from under the table” and take risks in faith—as she literally did at 15—to fully experience Christ’s promise of abundant life.
Herman, a native of Mobile, Ala., was the first African-American to hold the office of Labor Secretary when she was confirmed in President Clinton’s second term. She previously served as White House director of the Office of Public Liaison in Clinton’s first term and in another Labor Department post under President Carter.
But at St. Anthony’s Women’s Day Mass April 22, she spoke of how Catholicism has grounded her to step out in faith. Herman said her first lesson in risk-taking came at her Catholic high school in confronting the bishop of Birmingham-Mobile.
It was the first Sunday of May 1963, Herman told the congregation, the day of the annual crowning of Mary’s statue for the Catholic schools of Mobile, which included three white schools and Most Pure Heart of Mary School for African-American youth.
The sophomore awoke, anxious to attend, her uniform “crisp and clean, nails scrubbed” for the spring ritual. But she felt the Spirit nudging her to speak her conscience as she read a newspaper article about how school representatives would process onto the field to crown Mary. The writer failed to mention her school. As she tucked the article into her pocket, she was troubled that her school was always relegated to march behind the white schools and sit apart in the “colored section” of the stadium, and that its representatives were not included in the field procession.
So that evening as the crowning concluded, she asked her teacher to be excused to use the restroom, but she headed, with “knees shaking,” to the room where the bishop and priests would change out of their vestments. As she arrived at the empty room she heard voices approaching and was gripped with fear. She quickly hid under a table with a white cloth draped over it. As the priests entered, a monsignor spotted her and asked the girl what in the world she was doing. She crawled out from under the table, stood up, and told them she came to kiss the bishop’s ring. She then pulled out the newspaper article and noted that it reported all the Catholic high schools would be represented but that actually Pure Heart of Mary was unable to participate in the crowning, and asked why it was segregated. She then “immediately made a mad dash out the door and wept.”
The next day she was summoned to the principal’s office where she was expelled and told to “get your books and go home and tell your parents what you have done.”
She did, and Herman’s parents and others were outraged—but not at her. It galvanized many parents to protest the expulsion, and some threatened to pull their children from the school. She was soon readmitted, and the dialogue on segregation began. By the 1964 school year, Mobile’s May crowning was desegregated, and she was elected to process onto the field. That year the school integration process began for the whole diocese.
“The fact that I had been expelled for doing the right thing, it became the rallying point … that eventually led to the desegregation of the schools,” said the charismatic storyteller.
Herman subtitled her talk to the 104-year-old West End parish “Coming Out From Under the Table,” and she recalled how this incident taught her to take risks and trust God as she worked to realize her potential.
“I learned to get in the habit of risk-taking,” which gets less scary through practice, she said. “I was learning this at a very early age, what it really means to step out in faith, to lean on the Lord and have confidence in him and believe he will see you through.”
It also taught her she could affect positive change for herself and the community.
Herman went on to graduate from Xavier University in New Orleans. She began her career as a social worker for Catholic Charities in Mobile. At 29, President Carter’s appointment made her the youngest director of the Women’s Bureau in the history of the Labor Department. On May 1, 1997, she was sworn in as America’s 23rd Secretary of Labor. During her tenure, she led the effort to institute a global child labor standard and launched the most aggressive unemployed youth initiative since the 1970s. Unemployment reached a 30-year low and the nation witnessed the safest workplace record in the department’s history.
Herman met her husband, Dr. Charles Franklin Jr., while serving as Labor Secretary, and they live in McLean, Va., where she is chief executive officer of New Ventures, Inc., and serves in many other capacities, including as a Xavier board member and co-chair of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.
The poised speaker, wearing an ivory suit with gold trim, encouraged those who feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety or who are victims of physical or verbal abuse. She challenged them to call upon the Lord right where they are and to consider if they’re experiencing the fullness of God’s plan for them.
“What’s holding you back from embracing your heritage, your legacy of faith? For some it might be a lack of confidence to make that career move and to truly believe that God has something better for you. … Where would we all be if the Blessed Virgin Mother had not said … ‘Thy will be done’?”
She urged parents to be involved with their children’s lives, monitor what music and words they listen to, and pass on their heritage of faith, advising parents not to worry about whether their children like them.
“Our job is to make sure we are putting them on the path of Christian life and that they will be able to imitate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
To live courageously, she reminded them to take private time for prayer and renewal.
“We’ve got to find ways to restore ourselves. You have to make time to connect with our Lord and Savior, to connect with yourself. Some of us are under the table because we really believe that’s where we’re supposed to be. Because of depression, worry, anxiety and fear we are so overwhelmed, we are just stuck,” she continued. “You really do have to come out and just stand there … and just be embraced by the light and you have to believe that no matter how great the sorrow or burden is that he will truly be there for you.”
She referred to the Gospel story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus and was ridiculed for wasting money on it.
“Jesus looked at her and said ‘go in peace and sin no more for your Father has saved you.’ So let us leave this place today in peace, knowing our Father has saved us and let us go forth knowing we all have to be living witnesses to his word.”
As they each answer their call and let God work in their lives in mysterious ways, they will be a blessing to others, she said.
Father Timothy Gadziala, pastor, also honored the memory of women who were instrumental in shaping his life, his Italian-American mother and his grandmother. His mother was Jewish, converted to Catholicism, and remained strong in faith even as her Jewish family shunned her for the decision. She lived her faith by her loving example.
“My mother fed everybody in the neighborhood. She fed us with more than food and marinara sauce. She fed us with virtues,” he said, including honesty and loyalty, faith, hope and charity, and not judging people by their skin color. “She preached without saying a word, but by her example.”
His grandmother, who was born in 1909 and died just a few years ago, had a Catholic faith that was “stirred but never shaken,” even after Sept. 11, 2001, while living in New York. “We all have women in our lives who have touched us. … What a wonderful gift we share today.”
The pastor and congregation also recognized the efforts of the parish women who helped to raise $10,000 for Father Gadziala to lead the youth group on a mission trip to serve sick and disabled children in Kingston, Jamaica, through Mustard Seed Communities.
The Mass was planned by a committee co-chaired by Paulette Norvel Lewis and Kimberly Daniels. Guest singer Kathleen Bertrand sang the song “Heritage of Faith,” and special visitors included Herman’s high school teacher Dominican Sister Patricia Caraher, who ministers now in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Afterward Herman greeted parishioners in the parish hall and said in an interview that her school experience never made her want to leave her church, only to work within it for reform.
“I never knew how we could preach a Gospel of love and inclusion and support segregation. I just never understood,” she reflected.
Her father, Alex Herman, had sued the Democratic Party for voting rights and was the first black state wardsman. She “embraced his values.”
“I always was taught to stay and fight. My father was the first African-American elected to any office in the Deep South” since Reconstruction, she said.
Herman added that her job as a social worker with Catholic Charities set her career path. She helped young blacks not attending college to find jobs in the shipbuilding industry, where blacks hadn’t previously gotten hired. She learned what obstacles they faced, and she helped them persevere to get apprenticeships and become electricians, sheet metal workers and other skilled tradesmen.
“My boss at Catholic Charities … encouraged me to work with the officials to help break down the barriers and to see if we could get many of the young African-American males jobs in shipping as apprentices,” she said. “For me the church was my foundation as a young social worker at Catholic Charities. … It was a foundational experience.”
Only three months after she became Labor Secretary the nation faced its biggest labor strike in 20 years when UPS workers struck. Her counsel advised her to stay out of it until the conflict came closer to a successful resolution. But Herman said her faith pushed her to go against that advice and take a “leap of faith” and get into the fray right away to help resolve the dispute.
Her background in youth ministry also gave her a passion to work for impoverished youth, she said, which led her to work to establish global standards banning the worst forms of child labor.
Her lifelong friend, Paulette Norvel Lewis, invited Herman to speak at the Mass. Lewis grew up in Pascagoula, Miss., but there weren’t any Catholic schools for blacks there then. She lived with Herman’s family during the week so she could attend the Catholic school in Mobile.
“She’s always been a leader, a unifying force,” she said of Herman.
Twelve-year-old Kinsey Simpson recited a poem during the liturgy entitled “She Stands” by Jaunda Taylor. She was inspired by Herman and is now on the student council and debate team and interested in politics.
“It’s cool because she’s a good role model and worked hard,” Simpson said.
She recalled how her faith calmed her nerves as she gave a speech when running for student council. “I felt that helped me. I won.”
Simpson tries to live her faith every day and says a prayer before meals and wears a crucifix. “Some of the kids think it’s weird because I always say grace before I eat, but I tell them nothing is wrong with that.”
Angela Franklin was in town from Houston to visit a friend and felt privileged to hear Herman’s witness.
“Just to be in her presence is a privilege,” she said.
“Her whole story touched me. To do what she did at such a young age is marvelous, to take that stand. To me she is sending out that message that you have to take the risk if you believe in something. You have to take the risk and go for it,” she said. “It’s inspiring that you can do whatever you want to do. You have to have faith in God and not try to control your path. Let him be in control.”
Sister Patricia was one of the sisters who staffed Herman’s school in Mobile. She affirmed her pupil after the young girl took her stand and was expelled, telling her she did the right thing. The Sinsinawa Dominican recalled that Herman in high school was student council president and always “very smart, popular, outgoing, friendly and charismatic in how she related to people.”
Sister Patricia said their school was a close-knit community in the black section of Mobile, while noting that the church can’t be proud of its support of segregation at the time. She and other Dominicans there learned a lot from the students’ families and had an “evolution that happened in our spirit” as they realized the systemic nature of discrimination and segregation and grew in solidarity with them. That led many of the sisters to active involvement in the civil rights movement, including going to jail.
“Alexis’ action that day was one of the things that began to radicalize me” to work for social justice as well as charity, she recalled.
They’ve stayed in touch and Herman attended the nun’s 50th jubilee anniversary last year. Sister Patricia attended her congressional hearing for her confirmation as Secretary of Labor, where, as she watched a white Alabama senator testify on Herman’s behalf, she reflected on the revolutionary changes in the South where the two would not have been able to walk down the same sidewalk growing up.
She admires how Herman, in all her work, has maintained a “gracious, reconciling, merciful spirit toward other people.” And she seemed to rivet the St. Anthony’s congregation with her skillful delivery of the challenge to “get out from under the table.”
“That image is so powerful and it had a message for everybody, that all of us need to get out from under some table,” Sister Patricia said.