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Mathew Ahmann

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Mathew Ahmann

Mathew H. Ahmann
Ahmann on August 28, 1963, behind Martin Luther King, Jr.
Born Matthew Ahmann
(1931-09-10)September 10, 1931
St. Cloud, Minnesota
Died December 31, 2001(2001-12-31) (aged 70)
Washington, D.C.
Alma mater College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University (1952)
Occupation Activist
Religion Roman Catholic
Spouse(s) Margaret C. Ahmann
Children 6

Mathew H. Ahmann (September 10, 1931 – December 31, 2001) was an American Catholic layman and civil rights activist. He was a leader of the Catholic Church's involvement in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[1]

By initiating the 1963 National Conference on Religion and Race, Ahmann worked to establish the civil rights movement as a moral cause. He was one of four white men who joined the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He gave a speech during the march that preceded the "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.[2] Following the Civil Rights Movement, he directed several civil rights and Catholic service initiatives.[3] He is not commonly thought of when thinking of the civil rights movement but has been said to have acted as a catalyst for the Catholic Church's involvement in the movement. [4]

Early life and education

Mathew Ahmann was born on September 10, 1931 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to Norbert Ahmann, a dentist, and Clothilda Ahmann a nurse, née Hall.[5] Ahmann's grandfather, Mathew Hall, was a German-American immigrant and St. Cloud businessman. Ahmann was the oldest of three brothers; in their family religion was a large part of everyday life as they attended catholic school and religious retreats. [5] They each attended Saint John's Preparatory School in Collegeville, Minnesota.[1][2] Ahmann grew up a boy scout and playing music in a band.

Ahmann studied social science at Saint John's University for three years.[1] After graduating in 1952, he entered a master's degree program in sociology at the University of Chicago. Ahmann's brother David recalled Ahmann's intent was to finish his master's program but he left to focus on his work with the civil rights movement.[3]

Civil Rights Movement

Ahmann worked in Chicago for several years as director of the Chicago Catholic Interracial Council.[3] In 1960, he founded and became the executive director of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice. As director, Ahmann organized the National Conference on Religion and Race, the first national meeting on civil rights between Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders. The conference was held in Chicago on January 14–17, 1963. Ahmann scheduled it to coincide with the Emancipation Proclamation's 100th anniversary. Ahmann said his goal for the conference was to Leaders from 78 denominations attended, and speakers included Martin Luther King, Jr., Sargent Shriver, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1] An individual whom attended the conference believed it was an achievement in itself that Protestant, Catholic Jewish and Orthodox leaders had even come together. He says “A total of 1,000 delegate-- about 750 official delegates and 250 observer delegates” attended.[7] After Ahmann's speech, Heschel invited Ahmann to the stage and said, "We are here because of the faith of a 33-year-old Catholic layman." Heschel kissed Ahmann on the head, and Ahmann received a standing ovation.[1] A journalist whom attended concluded that even if the attendees did nothing after they left the conference, they would never be the same. He also explained that after the conference it was expected for committees of the three religions would to form on local and regional levels but in order to be successful they needed to be more unanimous in action not independent.[7]
Ahmann (far left) at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 1963.

Ahmann was asked by organizers of the 1963 At the August 28 March on Washington, Ahmann gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Ahmann's speech preceded King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 1965, Ahmann urged all United States diocese clergy to attend the Selma to Montgomery marches, in response to King's call for participation. In the same year, Ahmann gave the commencement speech at the College of Saint Benedict, where he encouraged women to fight for rights. In 1967, Ahmann wrote a letter to the incarcerated King, saying, "Our conference sends you greetings while you serve sentence for your witness for humanity, dignity and justice."[1]The King Center has uploaded this telegram to their online archives for the public to view.[9]

Ahmann continued to show his support to King and the movement in 1967 when he sent a on the 10 year anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to congratulate them on all of the work they had done and continued to do for human rights.[10]

Later activities and death

Ahmann worked with the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice until 1968. In 1969, he moved to Texas and became the executive director of the Commission on Church and Society for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.[3] During the 1972 presidential election, Ahmann worked for vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver.[3] He then worked for 16 years as the associate director of government relations for Catholic Charities USA in Washington, D.C..[11] He was also an executive committee member of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.[11]

Ahmann died of cancer on December 31, 2001, at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. A memorial mass was held at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C, on January 12, 2002.[12]

[11] In October 2013, Ahmann was posthumously awarded the Colman J. Barry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and Society from Saint John's University.[2][13]

Personal life

In 1954, Ahmann married Margaret C. Ahmann.[1] Together they raised six children.[12]


  • The New Negro (1961)
  • Race: Challenge to Religion (1963)
  • The Church and the Urban Racial Crisis (1967), with Margaret Roach


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ a b c d e
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b c 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 107.1 (2014): 77,115,8. ProQuest. Web. 13 May 2015.
  6. ^ Ahmann, Matthew, and Will D. Campbell. "Preface." Race: Challenge to Religion: Original Essays and An Appeal to the Conscience from the National Conference on Religion and Race. Chicago: Regnery, 1963. N. pag. Print
  7. ^ a b Mays, Benjamin E. "MY VIEW: The National Conference on Religion and Race." New Pittsburgh Courier (1959-1965), National edition ed.: 11. Feb 02 1963. ProQuest. Web. 15 May 2015 .
  8. ^
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  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^
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