One in Christ

Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice

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Karen J. Johnson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As I write this review on the last day of the year, I am counting the opportunity to read and review One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice by Karen J. Johnson as one of the gifts of the season. One in Christ examines the experiences of black and white Catholics in Chicago, from the turn of the 20th century through the 1960s, working together and apart for interracial justice and civil rights. She argues that Catholic interracial justice activism should be understood as an important facet of the long civil rights movement. Chicago Catholics fostered ecumenical and interreligious civil rights alliances that assisted Martin Luther King, Jr. and other well-known civil rights leaders in the 1960s by bringing white Americans directly into the movement. Johnson also endeavors to show exactly how and why Chicago Catholics became such consequential allies in the 20th century civil rights movement, and how Chicago Catholic civil rights activism began as a predominately black Catholic effort before becoming dominated by the white Catholic laity coming of age in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Johnson also emphasizes and analyzes the central roles that Catholic women played in this activism—from laying the theological foundations for Catholic participation in interracial justice to the practical elements of community organizing for civil rights. 

In writing One in Christ, Johnson joins the small but growing community of scholars who are reexamining the role of Catholics in the civil right movement including the late Cyprian Davis, R. Bentley Anderson, Timothy Neary, Paul Murray, Mark Newman, Amy Koehlinger, Matthew Cressler, Shannen Dee Williams, Gregory Hite, Jayasri Majumdar Hart, Charles Gallagher, Justin Poche, Katrina Sanders, and myself. With Johnson’s study, if one is conversant in this history they can revisit and rethink the actions and missions of significant Catholic individuals and groups who addressed and sought to dismantle American racism in the wider US context, as well as in the American Catholic church itself. Those who are new to this historical line of inquiry are treated to a wonderful introduction to this community of individuals and groups, which Johnson brings to the forefront to investigate how and why interracial justice was a such an important quest that lay Catholics in particular took up intellectually, spiritually, and practically. Among the persons introduced in One in Christare Arthur Falls, Baroness Catherine De Hueck, Ellen Tarry, Ann Harrigan Makletzoff, John LaFarge, and Mathew Ahmann. Johnson uses the convictions, experiences, and actions of these women and men in her study to make her argument that when it came to Catholic involvement in the civil rights movement, the laity led way with priests, religious sisters, and bishops serving in supporting roles. Johnson asserts that for lay Catholics, interracial justice and working for the civil rights of African Americans and others was not just a political or social issue; working for civil rights was deeply theological and personal. At its heart, Catholic interracialism was driven by the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self and to recognize the presence of God in all people. Johnson makes a convincing case for the role the theology of the Mystical Body of Christ played in the educational and spiritual lives of Chicago Catholic women and men as the movement for civil rights for African Americans was gaining traction. The Mystical Body of Christ theology called on all—not just priests—to act as Christ in the world. This theology taught that all are obligated to act as Christ’s hands, feet, and heart to address the suffering of the world. And, as racial discrimination was a plague on American society, working for racial justice animated young Chicago Catholics of this period. 

One in Christ is a valuable history. Johnson offers important insights about the place that Catholicism and Catholics had in shaping and redressing American culture and life, particularly with regards to race. The strength of her study is the manner in which she reveals and interprets the role that Catholics played in helping to craft communities of ecumenical and interreligious white allies for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I am not aware of any other study that has made this connection. One weakness in the study is an overly assertive claim for the primacy of Chicago Catholics in shaping how American Catholics understood and related to interracial justice, and how they became involved in civil rights activism. While I think Johnson has shown that Catholic Chicago provided very important and effective leaders for the movement, I am not convinced that Chicago Catholics occupied a place of primacy in Catholic civil rights activism. There were Catholics working for interracial justice and civil rights in powerful public and private ways all over the United States. How they approached their work for civil rights was contextualized the by cultural, political, and religious realities of their sites of activism. I would also have liked to have seen a more thorough interrogation of the racial dynamics at play in Chicago Catholic interracialism. What really prompted black Catholics leaders in Chicago to cede leadership to white Catholics? Did they really cede it, or did whites assume it? What did black Catholics gain in this move? What did they lose? Finally, among the most important things that this history teaches us is how difficult it was for whites, even those who sincerely cared about interracial justice and civil rights, to allow themselves to be led or directed by blacks. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cecilia A. Moore is Associate Professor in the Department of Reigious Studies at the University of Dayton.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Wheaton College in Illinois. She studies the intersection of religion and race in American history, teaches classes on the civil rights movement, race, and urban and suburban history, and works with future history teachers.


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