Religion in the Chicago Freedom Movement

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Karen Johnson, Wheaton College
When Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Chicago's white working-class neighborhoods in 1966 to protest for fair housing, he declared that he had never before seen such racial hatred. Angry Catholics threw bottles and rocks at the marchers while spewing racial epitaphs. But those who attacked the Protestant preacher also attacked fellow Catholics marching with him, many who had been fighting for civil rights for decades. Priests' and nuns' cassocks and habits clothed the marches in sacred garments, while lay Catholics, not so easily marked as Catholic, filled out the ranks. These Catholics continued to march despite a call from their Archbishop, Cardinal John Cody, to cease the protests lest more violence occur. The authoritarian archbishop had recently come to Chicago from New Orleans, where he had demonstrated his support for the movement in substantial ways. At the negotiating table, King and his Chicago partners, including the Catholic Interracial Council's (CIC) John McDermott, struggled to gain meaningful concessions from Mayor Richard Daley, a cradle Catholic who claimed to support the movement's goals. Ed Marciniak, a CIC founder and then director of Chicago's Commission on Human Relations, sat with Daley. Clearly Catholic involvement in the civil rights movement in Chicago was complicated.

This paper evaluates the complicated roles Catholics played in the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement. It argues that Catholics on all sides of the conflict imbued the protests with religious significance and that even in a post-Vatican II era, lines of authority continued to matter. Most broadly, the paper uses the Chicago Freedom Movement to demonstrate that we must pay attention to the inner rhythms of the Catholic faith in order to fully understand the civil rights movement in the North and the history of America in the twentieth century.

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