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A Catholic looks back on his time in the civil rights movement

A new short film shows how their faith inspired Paul Bokulich and his wife Pat to devote themselves to the cause for civil rights in the 1960s.

A scene from the short film "You Have to Have Light to Dispel the Darkness."

“You cannot dispel evil with evil—you have to have goodness to dispel evil.” That is how Paul Bokulich, a civil rights activist who participated in a historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, describes the profound connection he sees between the spiritual life and the civil rights movement.

Bokulich is the subject of a new short film by filmmaker Sean Schiavolin, You Have to Have Light to Dispel the Darkness. The film highlights the role Bokulich’s Catholic faith played in his decision to travel to Alabama as a young man to participate in the march from Selma organized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; it also shows how religious conviction and trust in God inspired Bokulich and his wife, Pat, to move to Alabama as newlyweds to work to advance the rights of the black community.

Schiavolin—who has worked on film projects for the Vatican, PBS, and ESPN, among others—recently discussed his short film with CWR. You Have to Have Light to Dispel the Darkness can be viewed on YouTube and Vimeo.

CWR: How did you become aware of Paul Bokulich and his experiences with the civil rights movement?

Sean Schiavolin: Several years ago while picking up my boys from our friends the Ramsays’ house, my eye caught a striking black and white photo on their wall. It was stunning: a line of regal marchers in black suits and hats moving right to left on a hill with an ominous storm cloud overhead. “That’s my dad,” Rebecca said, pointing to the tall white guy in the center of the frame. That photo turned out to be one of the most famous photos of the entire civil rights movement, taken during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

CWR: As a filmmaker, what drew you to his story?

Schiavolin: I’ve often wondered what it was like for faithful Catholics living during that momentous time. Was the Church divided? Were we all behind the cause? How was it being lived out? When I heard that Paul, a Catholic Worker Movement member in college, had moved to Alabama to join the civil rights movement, I thought he must have a ton of wisdom to offer young Catholics today who feel called to live out the Gospel in our times.

CWR: Paul and his wife clearly saw their civil rights work as rooted in their Catholic faith—do you think that connection is sometimes overlooked, both historically when we consider the civil rights movement, and today when we think about contemporary issues?

Schiavolin: I think that’s Paul’s core message for our activism in our times. For him, we are neglecting our faith, the “spiritual force,” in the various cultural causes we are undertaking. When he went to Selma he was swept away by how the role of faith was fueling the movement. He talks about how they consciously knew and prepared themselves to endure suffering for the cause and the conscious discipline that it took. I certainly don’t see that perspective too much these days.

I’ve been hired throughout the years to work on different projects for social organizations, and I’ve found myself thinking about how much good fruit could develop with the voice and presence of faithful Catholics. Then I often see in Catholic spheres a real lack of willingness to get involved with secular activities. The result is that we are operating in a fractured culture and that becomes more and more divided. So in particular these days, I think there’s a lot we can learn from the civil rights movement that Paul and Pat dedicated themselves to. For him, the movement lost its power when they relied more on government-funded support.

CWR: What effect do you hope this short film has?

Schiavolin: This was a small tribute to a man who, inspired by his faith, humbly lived out the message of the Gospel and lived a very rich life. I hope that his witness will inspire others to live out their faith and to engage and enrich the culture around them. Also, since I was only able to spend one day filming with Paul, I would very much be interested in making a more substantive film on his life.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.


  1. One instance the complicity of Catholics in leftist movements that had for their purpose the undermining of American culture and authorities… There is no reason to celebrate but much for which to apologize.

    No more SJW activism, which only serves to strengthen the state.

    • Perhaps you didn’t watch the film. I did and found it moving. There is no hint of SJW ideology in it, and the film makes clear that Paul and Pat Bokulich thought that turning to government for support was a misstep for a movement that began with a religious underpinning that should have been kept.

      It was a pity that the American Left ended up “owning” the Civil Rights Movement, which it secularized, as it was a pity that the American Right did little to right the injustices that induced the movement in the first place.

      • Mr. Keating, what you don’t get is that people rightly resent outsiders virtue-signalling in an locale whete they have no skin in the game. This is true of SJW activists now, it was true of the do-gooders back then.

        • Rev. King invited them, they were not resented. Sheriff Gilmore was friends with Paul until Gilmore died. Viola Liuzzo was a white activist who was killed for her efforts- she had skin in the game.

          • Rebecca.
            I’m not so much disagreeing with your replies, but I’m old enough to remember some of these events from my childhood & there was certainly a resentment to folks coming from Northern states & stirring things up. No doubt many things in the South were in serious need of repair & overhauling, but the perception that it was being led by outsiders made for greater resistance by people of my parents’ generation.

            We always found ironic that following Selma there was massive opposition to school integration in Boston, Mass. of all places. I doubt the folks in South Boston appreciated civil rights activists any more than the folks in South Carolina.

            But all’s well that ends well. I’m glad that we’ve moved forward.

      • You must realize that at that time and in that place, “outsiders” of all stripes were indeed resented in all walks of life. (I was a young Catholic professional from Texas moved to North Alabama in that very time of the march, and not accepted either.) One can not equate then/there with now/here. The South had many good things to offer the nation, but at the same time had a social inequity in some quarters. Granted the barriers were being removed at a slower pace than viewed optimal, but it was happening. I lived in it, and experienced it first hand. I am a contemporary of Paul, born a year earlier, and witnessed George Wallace stand in the school doorway to block integration of the schools.

        • Mrs, Cracker and Bill Dowdy, yes, the Civil Rights workers were resented by those who wanted to continue to oppress black people. Maybe the oppression would have slowly ended without outside interference, maybe not. But even if it would have, why would it have been better for black people to have endured oppressive laws until Southern whites were ready to let them vote and sit at lunch counters and so on? To avoid the resentment of the oppressors? Sometimes we have to look back and realize our past feelings of resentment were wrong. My grandparents opposed what my parents were doing and didn’t go to their wedding because black people were invited. At marches, the hardware store would hand out ax handles for people to beat the non- violent protesters with. I am well aware that the Civil Rights Movement was opposed by many. It was a great accomplishment.

          • An accomplishment that won’t last as it is all about coercion by the state, and when the state collapses so will it. Regardless of superficial integration at the level of use of public facilities and public accommodation, etc., separation between different ethnic groups continues to exist and the state cannot even attempt to force this without trampling on more rights. Coercion of integration doesn’t happen in Iraq, China, Israel or a host of other places, even those places where divisions are literally tribal. Only fools thought they could achieve this in the United States, aiding subversives and the National Government in increasing its power.

  2. We read that “the movement lost its power when they relied more on government-funded support.” And yet, today, from funding “support” to metastasized cultural tyranny and ecclesial gangrene. All this in half a century.

    The rest of the story is that, first, the government (especially the judiciary and a recent President) ended up BETRAYING the “civil rights” movement into the hands of the cultural/morality deconstructionists. From a man on the moon, to the civil rights (!) of a man mooning in the girl’s locker room!

    And, second, that the Church itself is now equally infested.

    Is the implied indifferentism of so-called “pluralism” of religions cut from THE SAME CLOTH as indifferent, front-to-back, spectrum sexuality? Which, under the new-paradigm magisterium of Fr. James Martin, for example—-and his purple and red-hatted enablers in high places—-holds that homosexual actions are categorically no different than, say, adultery and, therefore, should be MAINSTREAMED?

    There is no longer any such thing as a baked in Natural Law or even binary natural biology. Trampled under the graffiti “civil rights” movement of today is the awkward fact that in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King was still appealing to NATURAL LAW. . .

    Near the end King wrote: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most SACRED values in our Judaeo-Christian HERITAGE, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the FOUNDING FATHERS in their formulation of the Constitution AND the Declaration of Independence” (caps added).

    Even Supreme Court Justices, at their Senate confirmation hearings, delicately decline to commit to the (foundational and integral) Declaration of Independence, but instead swear to uphold only a severed and procedural (and, yes, brilliant) Constitution.

    Yes, The Day Is Far Spent (Cardinal Sarah). And the exiled Cardinal Mueller (Roman Encounters, EWTN) is a modern-day reminder to all non-amnesiacs of the 4th-century non-Arian St. Athanasius (Nicene Creed)—-who was exiled no less than five times.

    • I wrote: “Is the implied indifferentism of so-called “pluralism” of religions cut from THE SAME CLOTH as indifferent, front-to-back, spectrum sexuality?” Unnoticed by the critics of the Abu Dhabi’s “pluralism of religion” is the included parallel: “pluralism…of sex” (“The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God. . .”)

      Pluralism and diversity of sex—-rather than BINARY? What is this other than “gender theory”?

      For the vanguard of post-Christian and secularist theologians now embedded even within the Church, is this (inadvertent?) Abu Dhabi wording on human sexuality now an EXPLOITABLE opening for advancing the homosexual lifestyle and subculture? Is gender theory being mainstreamed by unwitting wording in interreligious declarations?

      Instead—-and the far better path for future steps in Abu Dhabi’s goal of real Fraternity—-would be to champion the distinct and universal NATURAL LAW. Natural Law, an orientation and virtues directly baked-into each and all of us from the beginning and accessible to human reasoning. Not to be reduced to any academic school of thought about such a “law,” nor to be displaced by any facile alloy (“pluralism”) of natural religions with revealed religion (i.e., faith in the historical, elevating and in a very qualified sense even “deifying” Incarnation; “deify”: a concept of Redemption that in a stroke of the pen is truncated and then summarily dismissed in the Joint Declaration. . .).

      As a further step in well-grounded Fraternity, might inquiring Muslims join in rediscovering the universal—-and not narrowly “western”—-Natural Law? More concrete than any secondary and competing school of thought in Western academia; and distinct and to be differentiated from the very insular, engulfing and package-deal Koran/Sharia Law?

      Fraternity? A dialogue not between religious letterheads, but first between persons as such, AND therefore recalling our universal, innate, and literally “given” (baked-in) Natural Law as a necessary common ground.

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