This month’s celebration of Rev. Martin L. King (1929-1968) is of course about more than King. The civil rights era is about more than the Montgomery boycott that began in December 1955. It obviously includes Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who courageously refused to give up her seat on a bus. Keep in mind, Parks’ disobedience was not a momentary impulse, but was the outcome of much preparation.
In recent times several scholars have drawn attention to “the longer civil rights movement.” Karen Johnson of Wheaton College is one of those scholars. Her book, One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), details significant civil rights activity as early as 1930—not in the South but in Chicago. Her examples, perhaps surprisingly, are Catholic organizations.
Johnson’s thorough account in eight more-or-less chronological chapters plus 49 pages of valuable footnotes is “primarily a story about laypeople” who in addition to highlighting aspects of Catholic doctrine also challenged the notion that priests are above laypeople, that urban Catholicism is synonymous with intra-parish ministries and that Catholics acting as Catholics should keep their efforts separate from Protestants and Jews.
Arthur Falls (1901-2000), a pioneering black physician involved with Federated Colored Catholics and then with Catholic Worker movement, is prominent in the first four chapters and appears throughout the book. The fifth and sixth chapters feature Friendship House with Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), Ellen Tarry (1906-2008) and Ann Harrigan Makletzoff (1910-1984); the seventh and eighth feature the Catholic Interracial Council with John McDermott (1926-1996) among others. Msgr. Dan Cantwell (1915-1996) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004) appear in nearly all the chapters.
These Chicago Catholics were successful to a degree. They “helped enlarge America’s moral imagination,” Johnson explains. They showed that racial justice is more than a political matter. Due to these Chicago activists and also to many religious leaders in the South and around the nation, civil rights became a significant aspect of faith, both for blacks and for whites. Further, the Chicago Catholics—years before Vatican II (1962-1965)—taught others that individual salvation and personal transformation are not enough. They communicated, in words and more so by way of example, that full-time Christians must seek “the common good by reforming the institutions shaping the public sphere.”
Johnson includes enough detail to dispel any suggestion of hyper-romanticism among these civil rights pioneers. These people were street savvy. They knew how to agitate and at the right moment what to compromise. They avoided getting personally bent out of shape even as they necessarily engaged in sharp disagreements with one another over strategy: How to include Chicago’s bishop—if at all. Whether or not to include anti-poverty measures in efforts against racism. Whether or not to maneuver inside the Democratic Party, which in Chicago was the Daley Machine. Are discussion groups a waste of time? Can Catholics be militant?
Remarkably, most of these Catholic civil rights leaders remained Catholic their entire lives. It is remarkable because, as Johnson details in parts of two chapters, more than one bishop, some influential pastors and the Catholic system itself reinforced racial distinctions. For example, Falls once told me that the segregation that hurt him the most was on Saturday afternoons when he went to confession. Blacks had to stand in one line and wait until each person in the white line had received absolution.
Johnson writes a comprehensible story. This is an achievement because all her subjects died before she began. She thus scoured multiple libraries for newspapers, magazine articles, minutes of meetings and more. Johnson, by the way, is not Catholic. Yet the book flawlessly covers Chancery politics and points of theology.
A powerful 2% of young Catholics are once again interested in the social question–in race relations, in living wage campaigns, in the dignity of all life, in socially responsible business, in green technology, in mental health delivery, in criminal justice reform and immigration topics. One In Christ is an inspiring account of visionary Catholics who navigated the push-and-pull of public life, and had some fun along the way. As we rightly celebrate King Day, we can continue to learn from all the efforts in our country directed toward “liberty and justice for all.”
Droel of Chicago is a board member of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).