Mathew Ahmann '52

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, in a crowd.]

Mathew Ahmann with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at March on Washington, 1963. 

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Leaders of the march)

Ahmann (left) with leaders of the March on Washington

Mathew Ahmann Senior Photo

Mathew Ahmann SJU Senior Photo (1952)

Mathew Ahmann to Speak for Graduation

Mathew Ahmann attended St. John’s Prep School (’49) and graduated from St. John’s University (’52) with a degree in social science. SJU sociology Professor Emerson Hynes inspired him to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Ahmann never completed that degree, as he wanted to be more active in pursuing social justice. SJU was instrumental in the direction his life took and his wife, Margaret Ahmann, credited SJU and the Benedictines for igniting his lifelong journey for social justice. 

Ahmann served as the business manager of Today Magazine and worked for the Chicago Department of Welfare until he became a field representative for the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago in 1957. He was the founding director of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ) in 1960. Ahmann organized the National Conference on Religion and Race in 1963. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the event was opened by President John F. Kennedy.  Seventy-eight denominations attended the conference and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the three co-chairs. The success of this conference lead Ahmann to be appointed one of the ten chairmen for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963. Ahmann also eventually succeeded in getting Fr. Patrick O’Boyle, the Archbishop of Washington, to offer the invocation at the march. Five bishops, one archbishop, and many priests and nuns attended. He asked that the Sisters who participated in the march wear their habits to show a visible Catholic presence, even though nuns no longer regularly wore habits. In 1965, Ahmann helped get white Catholics to participate in the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama for Black voting rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for clergy to come to Selma, so Ahmann called dioceses all over the US. This contributed to a big turnout and the marches ultimately got the Voting Rights Act passed.  

Ahmann spoke at the 1965 CSB commencement, where he encouraged Bennies to seek out equal rights. At that point, women’s rights were not at the forefront, so this stuck with many women. In November 1967, Ahmann sent a telegram to MLK Jr. when he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. On behalf of the NCCIJ, Ahmann gave written support, “while you serve sentence for your witness for humanity, dignity and justice.” Ahmann was in the NCCIJ until 1968. While a part of the NCCIJ, Mathew traveled extensively to network with bishops and diocesan officials to try to establish and coordinate interracial councils in each Catholic diocese in the US. From 1969-1972 he worked as executive director of the Commission on Church and Society a social action commission for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas. He focused on empowering and increasing opportunities for the Mexican American community. From 1973-1989 he was the Associate Director for Government Relations at Catholic Charities USA in Washington. Ahmann died of cancer on December 31, 2001. He was awarded the Colman J. Barry award posthumously in 2013 in honor of his leadership and participation in the Civil Rights Moment and for his lifelong commitment to social justice.  

Read more:

Duffy, Brendon. "Acting On Faith."  Saint John's Magazine, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 24-31.

Murray, Paul T. “From the Sidelines to the Front Lines - Mathew Ahmann Leads American Catholics into the Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 107, no. 1,  2014, pp. 77–115,

Ahmann, Mathew H. “Views of a Social Activist.” U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 5, no. 2, Catholic University of America Press, 1986, pp. 225–27,

Mathew Ahmann '52