Albert Sidney Foley Jr. (1912-1990) was a Jesuit priest and professor of sociology at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Mobile County. Although a moderate, he worked to bring racial integration to Alabama.
Father Albert Foley Foley was born on November 6, 1912, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the oldest of eight children of Albert S. Foley Sr., a sugar company executive, and Gertrude Emily Mavor Foley. He attended Catholic schools in New Orleans and at the age of 17 entered the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits). He began studying for the priesthood at Grand Coteau Seminary in Louisiana and later attended Saint Louis University in Missouri and St. Mary’s College in Kansas. He was ordained in 1942 and then completed his Jesuit formation training in Florida and New York. During the summer of 1943, he taught religion and ethics at Spring Hill College, and in 1944 he returned there as a three-year replacement appointment in the sociology department. In 1947, he began graduate studies in sociology at the University of North Carolina. He earned a Ph.D. in 1950 and was assigned to the Institute of Social Order at Saint Louis University. In 1953, he returned to Spring Hill, where he would remain for the remainder of his life.
Foley Family Portrait, 1915 Although Foley was raised in the racially segregated South, it was not until he began teaching at Spring Hill College that he first confronted racial injustice and racist attitudes. His conversion was initially intellectual and arose after he had been assigned to teach a course on the sociology of race relations during his first stint at Spring Hill. His experiences in class discussions and readings—and interviews with black Catholics—inspired him to challenge the status quo and question the Catholic Church and its relationship to the emerging civil rights movement. Foley was a proponent of Catholic “interracialism,” the belief that racism was a sin and Catholics should embrace racial justice within the Church. He criticized the treatment of African Americans in the South by the Catholic Church and by society at large. He feared that the Catholic Church would lose its moral authority in race relations if it refused to confront racial segregation in its own institutions. Catholic groups like the National Catholic Interracial Federation, followed later by the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, encouraged white Catholics to accept black Catholics as equals. In addition, individual Catholics—led by sympathetic priests and nuns—supported the emerging civil rights movement. Nevertheless, the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile followed the South’s system of racial segregation closely, building separate parishes, schools, and hospitals for African American Catholics.
Fannie Motley Graduation Foley’s support for racial justice led to conflict with his local bishop. Spring Hill authorities defended Foley, however, in part because he preferred the scholarly study of racial problems and community education workshops to demonstrating and confrontation. He surveyed racial attitudes among whites, tracked the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote articles and taught classes based on his findings. In 1956, Spring Hill student Fannie Motley became the first Black graduate of a previously all-white college in Alabama. As the civil rights movement intensified in the early 1960s, he increasingly participated in both religious and secular civil rights organizations. For example, in 1961, under the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice Alabama Advisory Committee on Civil Rights, Foley conducted a statewide survey of the behavior of law enforcement officials in Alabama. The resulting report chronicled police brutality and mistreatment of black prisoners throughout the state. Acting through the Alabama Council on Human Relations, moreover, in 1961 Foley helped mediate the integration of Mobile’s downtown lunch counters, and he worked with Mayor Joseph Langan to broker a deal to peacefully desegregate city businesses.
“Bull” Connor in 1963 In 1963, Foley joined with other white clergymen in criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. and his direct-action demonstrations. They suggested that activists in Birmingham wait for the recently elected moderate mayor Albert Boutwell and his administration to take control from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor before launching the “Birmingham Campaign.” Foley believed that moral persuasion and social justice teaching—rather than confrontation—could achieve peaceful integration. That is, instead of marches and demonstrations that could provoke violence, he preferred using workshops and moral instruction to educate people about the benefits of integration. Consistent with his own beliefs in the need for community education, beginning in 1965, he received a federal grant to run a series of human relations workshops for public school teachers; the goal was to train them to help make school integration proceed smoothly.
Foley authored several books, including Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcaste, St. Regis: A Social Crusader, and God’s Men of Color: The Colored Catholic Priests of the United States, 1854-1954. Foley continued to teach at Spring Hill College and to conduct human relations workshops on social justice, anti-poverty, and racial issues until his death on December 2, 1990. He is buried at Spring Hill College. The Albert S. Foley, S.J. Community Service Center at Spring Hill is named in his honor.
Moore, Andrew S. The South’s Tolerable Alien: Roman Catholics in Alabama and Georgia, 1945-1970. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Ellis, Carol A. “The Tragedy of the White Moderate: Father Albert Foley and Alabama Civil Rights, 1963-1967.” M.A. thesis, University of South Alabama, 2002.