By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Faith continues to be at the core of achieving equality for people of all color and it was only through faith that the civil rights movement has been so successful in advancing equality for minorities.  


Chancellor John Pierre


That was the message Southern University chancellor John Pierre delivered during talks entitled “Faith, Social Action and Louisiana Civil Rights” at St. Paul the Apostle Church and St. Aloysius Church, both in Baton Rouge, on Feb. 12 and Feb. 26, respectively.  

The talks were presented by the Diocesan Racial Harmony Commission. 

“Faith has worked through our ancestors and others as they engaged in life threatening and often life-ending struggles to ensure that people of African descent would be treated equally in the United States and would be beneficiaries of the constitutional protections afford in this country,” said Pierre, who was appointed chancellor of the law center in 2016 but who previously served as vice chancellor and has been on the faculty since 1990. 

“Protections that would allow them to pursue life, liberty, equality and justice without being deterred and usurped by the institution of racism,” he added. “Racism has altering realities. If you don’t believe me all you have to do is look at the current situation this country is in.” 

He said people are advancing alternative facts and alternative realities, all sparked by racism. 

“So we must never forget the cancer that racism is and how it can kill dreams if we allow it to prevail,” he added. 

Pierre, a member of the Louisiana State Bar Association and the Texas Bar Association as well as the author of numerous articles on tax law, sales contracts, real estate and educational law, offered hope through faith. Calling faith “the precedent for social action,” he said it brings to fruition things that might otherwise seem impossible, such as the election and re-election of Barrack Obama as the country’s first African-American president. 

He said the election of Obama was only made possible through faith, noting “there was nothing about the practical realities that would have said a young African-American named Barak, with the last name of Obama, would have been elected as president of the United States of America.” 

“So we know that faith is very important because it was important to all of our ancestors,” he added. “Since the beginning of recorded history, faith has motivated human beings to look past their limitations associated with their immediate condition and believe and know that better conditions are possible. 

“In short faith motivated people to get things done that are not normally done.” 

Pierre offered several examples of how faith has “moved mountains,” beginning with President Abraham Lincoln. He said it was Lincoln’s faith that allowed him to focus on a domestic agenda to transform America after the Civil War had ended. 

But what was interesting, Pierre said, is that Lincoln began to focus on the agenda even as the North suffered decisive setback early in the war. 

“Lincoln had the faith to know that the North was going to win because truth was going to prevail,” Pierre said, adding that the president and Sen. Justin Moral from Vermont created the Moral Act of 1862, creating land grant colleges. 

That particular act, Pierre said, allowed accessibility for everyone to receive a college education, which was previously reserved for the rich and powerful. 

“In fact, if you were a slave you were forbidden to even learn how to read,” Pierre said. “The laws were stringent and it was a crime to teach a slave how to read. And so what (Lincoln and Moral) were doing was trying to make sure education was accessible to everybody, even if they were poor.” 

He said that act also allowed the development of historically black colleges and universities, which was critical because those who were enslaved needed to plan their own futures after the war ended. Pierre added that at the time many predicted the slaves would die because they would not be able to function in America with their freedom. 

“Imagine that,” he said. “(African-Americans) didn’t have political power, they didn’t have a large amount of economic power, but they had faith. And so their faith led them to take action when they needed to.” 

Perhaps what was not widely known at the time was slaves were craving education, to the point where 20,000 teachers had to be brought in from other parts of the country to train teachers. From 1865-1925, the South was seeing a proliferation of black colleges opening. 

Louisiana Lt. Governor Oscar Dunn, a Republican and the first elected African-American elected lieutenant governor in the United States, created Straight University in New Orleans in 1869. Straight University eventually became Dillard University, still a prestigious black university. 

Pierre said Dunn is the architect of what is now known as public schools in Louisiana. 

“Can you believe that?” he asked. “Let me tell you why you ought to believe it. Because it was black people who were formerly enslaved that created such a drive for education. 

“(Dunn) was concerned about the education of children of African descent but he was really concerned about the education of poor people in general.” 

In 1880, Southern was created, providing an alternative to African-American students who had been denied access to LSU for about 15 years. Grambling University followed in 1902 and later came Xavier University in New Orleans, founded by St. Katherine Drexel. 

“What an amazing amount of faith it took these people to believe that they could create those types of institutions when there was no hope, no laws to protect them except their dreams and their faith.” 

Pierre presented St. Paul pastor Father Rick Andrus with a DVD chronicling the 1960 sit-in in Baton Rouge. The students were exercising their right shortly after the U. S. Supreme Court decided a case that protected people’s right to have a sit in. 

“And the fact that you now can go in any place in Baton Rouge and eat wherever you want to is attributed to the work of courageous people with students at Southern University, referred to the Southern 16. 

Pierre is the son of sugar cane farmer and spent much of his youth picking pickles. He said “great lessons” were learned out in the fields “that would help us traverse through the course of life with the kind of strength and wisdom that allows us to endure all kinds of travails that people take today is really misery. But we understood that that was part of making us what we needed to be, which is courageous.”