There was a strengthening of the black-Catholic alliance in the 1960s as a direct result of three specific events: Vatican II, JFK’s presidency and Latin American liberation theology. From 1962-1965, there was the convening of the Second Vatican Council—also known as Vatican II—an extensive self-examination by the church that was arguably the most important event in Catholic history since 1054. Pope John XXIII used Vatican II to call the church to renewal so that it would serve to unify humankind. One of the byproducts of Vatican II in the U.S. was that it forced American Catholics to affirm African-American integration. This immediately brought the two groups closer.
But even before Vatican II, there was a warming of relations when the two groups coalesced around the candidacy of John F. Kennedy. The first Catholic president was also perceived to have a commitment to the civil rights struggle and a regard for the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Though Kennedy was always hesitant about intervening in civil rights work, he was instrumental in getting King released from prison in 1960, he sent federal troops to help integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962, and he put forward a comprehensive civil rights bill in 1963. King generally embraced Kennedy—and Coretta liked him—so the King-Kennedy link put a public face on positive relations between blacks and Catholics.
In the late 1960s, the infusion of Latin-American liberation theology into black theology connected blacks and Catholics. This brand of prophetic Catholicism placed poverty and oppression as first-order concerns of Jesus. This notion resonated nicely with the aims of the historic black church, which understood itself as speaking to the dispossessed and disinherited, but was criticized for not having a unique theology. African-American theologians fused their own commitments with these liberation theologians to create black liberation theology.
A prime example was Father Michael Pfleger, a Chicago native, most recently known for his associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was transformed by this theological synthesis. In 1968, he chose to dedicate his life to serving the African-American community on the South Side of Chicago.
And over 40 years later, Obama has also soaked up the lessons of black-Catholic unity of King-Kennedy, Vatican II and liberation theology from his own local religious engagement in Chicago. He learned from his work at the Industrial Areas Foundation about the overlap between progressive Catholicism and prophetic Christianity.