Minorities within Minorities

‘One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice’
Holy Angels Catholic Church in Bronzeville, 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

Current headlines might have you believe that no one, at least no white person, in Chicago ever noticed that the city had a race problem. Not so—as Karen Johnson’s history, One in Christ, describes and amply documents. In the fifty years following World War I and the murderous 1919 race riot, a small number of Chicago Catholics, black and white, took notice. Segregated, crowded, dilapidated, and over-priced housing for blacks was an obvious but difficult place to start. Jobs, education, and the demands of urban life were challenges for rural southern black migrants in particular. These Catholic activists, who are the primary focus of One in Christ, were always a “minority,” to use Johnson’s descriptive. They were Catholics in a Protestant culture, activists in ia local church suffused with racial prejudice, and the blacks among them suffered discrimination in both church and society. Her recurring image of minorities within a minority underscores the complexity of Chicago’s racial dynamic and the challenge in tackling it.   

Johnson begins with Arthur Falls, born in 1901 to a middle-class, African-American, Catholic family in Chicago. By his death in 2000, Falls had had a long and active life as a physician and vigorous advocate of “interracialism,” the proposition that blacks and whites should work together to improve the lives of blacks confined to Bronzeville, the city’s South Side ghetto. When Falls was born, Chicago was home to a small number of African Americans (six hundred of whom were Catholic), so small as to be unremarked. Over Falls’s lifetime their numbers grew dramatically. In 1910, blacks were 2 percent of the city’s population; by 1960, it had increased to 25 percent. The interracialists’ fellow Catholics noticed and often resented that demographic transformation.

The small coterie of Catholic activists followed in the book were mostly white; sometimes Falls worked with them, sometimes not. Johnson suggests that this tension gave Falls a moral claim on their attention and sometimes that of church leaders. She sums it up in asking: Did white activists work for better conditions along with or for blacks? Though not the liveliest writer, Johnson like a documentary filmmaker captures with cameo appearances and quick shots a number of these activists and their decades-long effort as a tiny minority to rally their fellow Catholics against racial injustice.

Within the Catholic minority were African Americans like the Falls family who had direct experience of segregation—in the church no less than elsewhere. Their Catholic beliefs spurred their efforts to break the color barrier: to worship in “white” parishes, to send their children to Catholic schools and their sick to Catholic hospitals. Falls appealed to white Catholics who shared his religious beliefs, and then to fellow blacks in groups like the Urban League who shared his goals but not his religion. These alliances had their own biases, as Johnson discusses, especially the middle-class condescension of established blacks toward the manners and mores of immigrants from the rural south. With his involvement in many  communities and groups, Falls pressed the borders of reform in several directions, sometimes discomfiting both church leaders and close collaborators.

As Johnson points out, Catholics, whether black or white, were also a minority, unwelcome in Protestant America. In the early decades of the twentieth century the U.S. Catholic Church absorbed millions of Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Czech, and other European immigrants. To meet their needs in Chicago, Archbishop George Mundelein created national parishes, taking advantage of natural communities of language and culture. The Falls family and other African Americans were consigned, over their objections, to a black “national parish.” In creating Catholic enclaves (richly described and analyzed in John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries), Mundelein in effect reinforced white-only neighborhoods and schools. In time, the parish itself became a structural barrier to the interracialism that Catholic activists sought to define and implement.

Activists faced other hurdles. In the pre-Vatican II church, bishops were effectively the singular authority in decisions about parishes, the clergy, and the role of the laity. Even when without biases themselves, the archbishops of Chicago, at least until the arrival of Albert Meyer in 1958, had a strictly pastoral view of blacks: yes, saving souls and conversion were promoted, and yes, blacks should have a parish or two, and yes, those parishes should have schools for black Catholic children. Where charity was needed, it should be given. But episcopal priorities did not extend to reprimanding parishes that barred blacks, or to high schools that refused black students, or hospitals that would not accept black doctors, like Falls, or his black patients. However much priests understood the needs of black parishioners and neighbors, they were controlled and restrained by their archbishops. Laymen and -women working in the name of the church for racial justice operated under the same restraints—or joined a secular organization.

Episcopal priorities did not extend to reprimanding parishes that barred blacks, or to high schools that refused black students, or hospitals that would not accept black doctors

Activists, white and black, were another minority within the church itself. In committees, conferences, and conversations throughout the 1920s and ’30s, they worked toward a more equitable treatment of blacks while maintaining episcopal support. Energy and ingenuity fed conversations, debates, and disagreements that went into years of strategizing. Should they focus on works of charity or justice, pursue conversions or collaboration, emphasize personal relations or political organizing? Johnson follows these shifts, cataloging the rise of an alphabet soup of organizations, coalescing ultimately in the Catholic Interracial Council, founded in 1945. As ecumenism emerged after World War II, activists often cooperated with Jewish and Protestant organizations in their interracial projects.

Individual efforts also came into play. Falls convinced Dorothy Day to open a Catholic Worker House in 1935; its leaders included future Commonweal editors John Cogley and James O’Gara. In 1942 Friendship House established an outpost in Bronzeville itself. Direct contact with the neighborhood and neighbors encouraged friendships and outreach that took the form of charity and social work. In 1930, Bernard Sheil, a Chicago auxiliary bishop, founded the CYO, an athletic and social resource that brought together black and white adolescents and young adults. (Another recent history, Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sport, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954 by Timothy B. Neary features a cover photo of the 1950 CYO swim team. (Was I surprised to see that the team included men and women, black and white? You betcha—I was astonished, 1950!)

These signs of progress were real, though sometimes tempered by hedging issues of how far the laity could go in doing the work of the church, sometimes with an acquiescent priest and at times without. Johnson cites the appointment of Reynold Hillenbrand rector (1936-1944) of Mundelein Seminary as a key to broadening interracialist influence by linking liturgy and theology with social justice and lay responsibility. Johnson calculates that Hillenbrand influenced some five hundred of the priests who passed through the seminary. Religious orders—Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans—enlarged this reach in the city’s high schools and colleges so that in the years before and after World War II, there was a cadre of students and young adults who had passed through Summer Schools of Catholic Action, belonged to Catholic Action Groups, were members of the CYO, CISCA, YCS, YCW, or had spent time at the Catholic Worker or Friendship House.

These women and men became heroes and mentors to a post-World War II generation of Catholics, many of them first-generation college students at Loyola, DePaul, Rosary and Mundelein College—including my friends and classmates. Johnson’s roster of activist names includes: priests Daniel Cantwell, Jack Egan, and Rollins Lambert, and lay people Edward Marciniak, Peggy Roach, Matt Ahmann, John McDermott, Ellen Tarry, Pat and Patty Crowley, and many others. Johnson judges this a high point of Catholic social action, Chicago-style. “If there was any place where lay-led interracial justice might have taken root, where laypeople might have fostered sweeping racial change, it was Chicago.” It is at once heartening and sobering to have my living memories registered in the data bank of history: letters, memoirs, unpublished autobiographies, newspaper accounts, diaries, and recorded interviews (cited in the extensive endnotes). 

Johnson singles out Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ as the theological and spiritual inspiration for the interracialists’ work, in particular for empowering lay initiative

Johnson singles out Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ as the theological and spiritual inspiration for the interracialists’ work, in particular for empowering lay initiative. At the same time, she stresses episcopal authority as the stop-and-go light for interracialist efforts. No doubt activists welcomed papal theology while chafing under mixed episcopal signals. But perhaps Johnson, writing as an evangelical, has overestimated elements alien to her own tradition. Interracialists did not have to appeal to Mystici corporis Christi to justify practical work on behalf of decent housing, education, welfare, and dignity, especially in the New Deal days, when the corporal and spiritual works of mercy were in every Catholic schoolchild’s Baltimore Catechism. And Catholics may possess greater capacities for rolling with bishops’ directives than Johnson realizes. 

Though One in Christ emphasizes the importance of Catholicism in the struggle for racial justice, the book also probes the role of the church in fostering racist attitudes and maintaining (both willfully and unwittingly) structures of racial segregation. Regardless of theology and authority, barriers to integration persisted in the city’s parishes and neighborhoods. In the pre-Vatican II Church, episcopal wavering, church governance, parish practices, and limited roles for clergy and laity were significant hurdles. Add to those waves of newcomers, both European and African American—all were a tide against the “interracialist” project. Yet the project held firm into the 1960s working for open housing ordinances and against block-busting and contract house buying.   

But then came another religious and political understanding: nonviolent protests and marches. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined with Chicago activists in the Chicago Freedom Movement. Many Catholics, including priests, sisters, and laity, joined in. But others, priests as well as Archbishop John Cody, questioned the wisdom of Freedom Marches in neighborhoods that refused to share their neighborhood with black families. Cody and others saw the marches as provocations to violence and likely to increase racial prejudice. Indeed, one of the objectives of the Freedom Marches was to show the level of racism among Northern whites. In that, they succeeded.

Johnson ends her account with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Freedom Summer in 1966. The Catholic Interracial Council came under pressure from Cardinal Cody and he withdrew his support in 1967. Committed Catholic activists, Ahmann, Marciniak, McDermott, Egan, and Roach among them, moved on to other civic, corporate, and religious groups working on integration and civil rights. Their potential heirs—some of them my classmates and friends—took up other crusades: voting rights projects in the South, the Peace Corps, anti-Vietnam protests, and women’s rights. The Black Power movement came forward to cut the Gordian knot of with or for, a shift marked by the sale of Friendship House’s Bronzeville building on the south side to the Black Panthers.

Whatever the strategies Arthur Falls and other Catholic activists pursued or rejected, the turns of a Rubiks cube of religion, race, class, and demography were aligned against a stable and lasting solution to the city’s racial divisions. But as Johnson thoroughly demonstrates, it was not for want of trying.


One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice
Karen J. Johnson
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 320pp.


Published in the January 25, 2019 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. This article has been adapted from the foreword to A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland (Eerdmans).

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