Social Change, Social Justice?: An Era of Agitation, 1965-1980

June 12, 1965 started off a cool 57 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperatures, and temperaments would heat up under the Chicago sun by late afternoon.[1] Indeed, this was the third day of demonstrations planned by local civil rights leaders to protest the city’s decision to rehire Benjamin C. Willis as superintendent of its public schools. Willis, like his immediate predecessors, believed that residence was the “only legitimate basis upon which to assign students to a particular school.”[2] In a city segregated by race such as Chicago, this meant that schools were segregated as well. This practice did not bode well for Chicago’s African-American students. According to Robert Havighurst’s 1963 survey of Chicago Public Schools, three-quarters of schools deemed “well-below average” were in “African-American areas of the city and had student bodies that were eighty percent or more Black.”[3] Chicago’s Civil Rights leaders wanted to shed light on this dilemma.

When their request for a public school boycott was denied, they took to the streets in protest. On Thursday, June 10, two hundred protestors marched, arm in arm, from Soldier Field, along Chicago’s scenic Lake Shore Drive, to downtown Chicago. Their fervor was infectious and, according to some estimates, their numbers swelled to over five hundred as workers, shoppers, and gawkers “just couldn’t stay out of the march.”[4] They clapped their hands, they sang songs, and they “fouled traffic.”[5] In a public statement after the march broke up, Mayor Richard J. Daley threatened, “As long as I am mayor, there will be law and order.”[6] He delivered on his promise.

The next day, a Friday, the spectacle continued, but the festive mood evaporated as hundreds of protestors were arrested. Father Daniel Mallette, a young, socially-minded priest of St. Agatha’s on Chicago’s Westside, was among the arrests. He made a desperate call for others to assist the protesters in the march the following day. By Saturday, thousands of protestors “jam[med] the loop” by sitting down in the middle of Chicago’s busy shopping district along State Street; 196 of them, including six sisters from Marillac Social Center, were arrested.[7]

As representatives of the Church and of their Order in all public engagements, the sisters’ decision to take part in the arrest was not made lightly. According to Sister Andrea Orford, “One doesn’t do a thing like this on the spur of the moment-especially one in my walk of life.”[8] Each sister prayed for guidance and in the end, Sisters Jane Briedenbach (59), Andrea Orford (35), Gloria Briganti (30), Edwardine Henjum (24), Pauline Cefolia (21), and Bridget Gemlo (21) joined the protesters and decided to participate in the march, as Sister Jane said, “to represent the people in [the] neighborhood who could not go themselves” and because they saw “a need for religious to support the cause” of eliminating de facto segregation.[9] For Sister Pauline Cefolia, the decision to participate came down to working for justice, despite the fact that she knew there would be push back from those who thought that “because I am a Sister I should have stayed home and prayed for the cause and let others fight for it.”[10] She continued, “I think that for too long we have safely and silently prayed for a cause when we should have been out with Christ fighting for it.”[11] Despite the fact that the sisters felt like they were doing God’s work, some Chicagoans disagreed.

In fact, the initial reaction to the arrests was overwhelmingly negative. According to Sister Mary William Sullivan, Marillac’s Director at the time, the phone calls and letters they received that first month following the arrests were 90% negative.[12] One letter-writer complained that he felt “shock,” “outrage” and “acute embarrassment and pain” by the sisters’ action.[13] He continued, “this is most assuredly going to make the task of the Sisters more difficult insofar as the accomplishment of their many worthy and long standing charities in our community.”[14] The comment was not far off the mark, as dozens of heretofore faithful benefactors rescinded their pledges, board members quit in protest, checks were returned, and fundraisers cancelled.[15] In this way then, the arrests could have crippled the financial and organizational structure of Marillac.

Yet Marillac survived; indeed, it thrived, as “Negroes, concerned with the plight of the nuns…rushed to the rescue.”[16] Among those who donated time and money were comedian Dick Gregory, who gave the House half of one of his weekly $5,000 paycheck, and popular, local disc jockey Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie.[17] In addition to heading up the Developing Committee, a new Marillac committee that he created, Daylie also produced and emceed a Night with Nancy Wilson, a benefit concert that took place on March 20, 1966 in the Arie Crown Ballroom of McCormick Place. Wilson agreed to donate all proceeds to Marillac and to the parish of St. Thaddeus Church. She commented, “I am delighted to donate my services for this benefit because the work of the Sisters with under-privileged children parallels my own interest.”[18] The “sell-out affair” was so successful, it “raised an estimated $40,000.”[19] Perhaps even more telling than the exorbitant monies raised, was the fact that the city’s elite, including the Mayor himself, along with the police superintendent, attended the affair. As Jet Magazine noted, “Mayor Richard J. Daley proclaimed that day (Sunday) as “Marillac House Day,” thus giving the city’s official stamp of approval and support to the nuns.”[20] Clearly Marillac Social Center had weathered the storm, but a new squall was headed its way.

When the civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, many people in cities around the nation responded to his death with violence of their own. “Angry crowds of singing, shouting, rock-throwing Negroes roamed” the streets of many of our nations cities, such as New York, Nashville, and Washington, DC.[21] Chicago too, weathered riots, looting, and arson. Chicago police officers were injured by sniper fire on both the south and west sides. When the riots came to an end, “3,000 national guard troops patrolled troubled areas of the city,” with an additional 3,000 waiting to be called in, a handful of police officers and firemen were recovering in hospital rooms, nine African Americans were dead, 350 people were arrested, 188 businesses destroyed, and about two miles of Madison Avenue, West to Damen and East to Harrison, was largely burned to the ground.[22] According to eyewitness Willie Morris, Jr., “We were standing on the roof of Marillac House…and watching the city burn.”[23] Despite the fact that Garfield Park was the epicenter of the most egregious examples of arson and violence, Marillac was spared.

According to Sister Julia Huiskamp, a program director at Marillac, “the burning” was “selective” and “aimed at those businesses where the Negroes felt they had been gouged.”[24] Indeed, Marillac Social Center had nothing to worry about, as its African-American community members thankful to the Sisters who were involved in the community and willing “to join black initiatives and take personal risks” protected it.[25] In fact, as Sister Mary William Sullivan commented, “Three blocks away the street was blazing, and across the street we could see the looters darting into the stores,” and yet within Marillac, twenty-five neighborhood teenagers gathered for a service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the next hours and days, these young people helped distribute emergency relief in the form of clothes, food, water, and hope to over 2,000 community members who came to Marillac for assistance.[26]

Though Marillac was able to give immediate relief to some of the victims of arson and looting in the short-term, the long-term effects of violence on the community created lasting damage. For example, though nearly two hundred businesses in the area were burned down, six years after the riots, only 10 of those businesses re-opened.[27] According to one sister, the neighborhood was “‘a dying community’ with people who achieve any degree of success ‘moving out as fast as they can.’”[28] And another noted, “From all indications, this community has been abandoned.”[29] Promised monies to rebuild the Westside never materialized; the community surrounding Marillac fell further and further into abject poverty and crime rates climbed dramatically. By 1969, Marillac closed their extension program at Rockwell Gardens. It seemed as if staying closer to home was a safer and a more effective way to distribute help to those who needed it.

During the 1970s, East Garfield Park was a very dangerous, and some would say hopeless, place to live. Marillac struggled to respond to the changing needs (and attitudes) of their neighbors. Sister Patricia Finerty, director of Marillac at that time, complained that teenagers had gotten out of control. “We always had to combat a certain amount of hostility among the teens,” she commented, “but now a lot of them seem past dealing with.”[30] Sister Julia agreed. “That’s what we have around here now,” she said, “a terrible hardened attitude, and terrible violent deaths and maimings without apparent reason.”[31]

In addition to having to deal with violent crime and the threat of violent crime on a daily basis, Marillac watched nervously as participation in all of their services, save their daycare, dropped precipitously. “Our service is now more and more intervention in basic survival situations,” Sister Julia said.[32] By the early 1970s, the Neighborhood Social Service Department with its goal “to help people survive, physically and emotionally, in a deteriorated, crime-infested, poverty area” was established.[33] Its services included operating one of the largest food pantries in Chicago, supplying emergency baby formula to desperate mothers (and their babies), and combatting child abuse through their model CAPs and CAPS II (Child Abuse Prevention) programs.[34] Ideally, these programs allowed families who struggled with abuse and/or neglect, to stay together while both the abused child (in the CAPS program) and the abusive/neglectful parent(s) (in the CAPS II program) received intensive counseling and help. The services proved effective and they continued for decades.

During these difficult years, Marillac staff wanted to show the children of their community that the world was a bigger (and better) place than Garfield Park. They started the Friendly Town program, which ran from 1968 through 1981, sending young boys and girls to farms in North Dakota and Minnesota for two-week vacations. At the height of the program, over sixty youngsters participated in it. It was not just a one-way ticket, however; in 1974 and again in 1979, farmers and their families from North Dakota traveled to Chicago to experience what life was like for the young boys and girls who stayed with them every summer. It was a learning experience for all parties.

To give older neighborhood children an alternative to drugs and gangs, Marillac continued their afterschool programs. In fact, “The Hangout,” i.e. the multi-purpose room that teenagers congregated in, was renamed in honor of one of Marillac’s very own, Anton C. Myles. As a teen, Myles came to Marillac and participated in a variety of its services. When he was killed in the Vietnam War in 1970, Marillac renamed “The Hangout” the Anton C. Myles Place, a.k.a. Myles Place, to motivate teens. According to Willie Morris Jr, the director of the pre-teen program at that time, the name change signified teenage autonomy and ability to effect change in the world. It was, in Morris’ words, about giving “significance to young people who had done something.”[35] Honoring Myles was about encouragement and “try[ing] to build up a sense of pride in children.”[36] Marillac wanted to show children and teens that gangs and drugs were not the only paths available to them.

Though East Garfield Park was stained by violence throughout the 1970s, Marillac was able to work effectively as they received monies from a variety of sources. Most notably, as a result of the Lyndon Baines Johnson’s, and his sympathetic successors’, attempts to get an upper hand on the “War on Poverty” and to create a “Great Society,” there was an increase in government funding and support, particularly in poor and in African-American communities. Because their main focus was helping the poor in a predominantly black neighborhood, Marillac Social Center qualified for government money to help subsidize their programs. Indeed, in the 1970s, Marillac received as much funding from the government (through programs such as the Model Cities program which funded some children for day care and through the Department of Agriculture which subsided school meals) as it did from its traditional source of revenue, Catholic Charities and the Community Fund.[37] This seemingly limitless funding source would soon dry up, however, and once again, Marillac would be left trying to think of new ways to continue to service their community, but now, with diminishing funds.

Works Cited
[1] “Chicago Midway Airport,” Weather Source, 12 June 1965 (accessed 1 May 2014).
[2] John L. Rury, “Race, Space, and the Politics of Chicago’s Public Schools: Benjamin Willis and the Tragedy of Urban Education,” History of Education Quarterly 39, vol. 2 (1999), 126.
[3] Rury, “Race, Space…,” 127.
[4] Brenetta Howell and Skip Bossett, “2000 Pledge Daily Marches in Chicago,” Chicago Defender 12 June 1965.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Arrest 228 Rights Marchers,” Chicago Tribune 12 June 1965.
[7] “Pickets Jam Loop; 196 Jailed,” Chicago Tribune 13 June 1965.
[8] “Personal Statement of Sister Andrea Orford Regarding Demonstration of June 12, 1965 or “Why I marched and allowed myself to be arrested on June 12th, 1965;” box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[9] “Personal Statement of Sister Jane Briedenbach Regarding the Demonstration June 12, 1965;” box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[10] “Personal Statement of Sister Pauline Cefolia Regarding Demonstration June 12, 1965;” box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Letter from Sister Mary William Sullivan to unknown, 11 August 1965; box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[13] Letter from Edward V. Donovan, Jr. to Father Dolan, 16 June 1965; box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Blocking Traffic Conviction Almost Put Them in Jail,” Chicago’s American 10 July 1965, box 3, folder 17, MSCA.
[16] Chester Higgens, “Nuns Risk Their Lives in Slums to Help Negroes,” Jet Magazine vol. 29, no. 26 (April 7, 1966).
[17] Ibid.
[18] “Nancy Wilson Plays Arie Crown, Sunday,” Chicago Defender, 16 March 1966.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] “Negro Violence Hits Cities in Wake of Dr. King Slaying,” Chicago Tribune 5 April 1968.
[22] “Many Stores Looted, Fireman Face Snipers,” Chicago Tribune 6 April 1968.
[23] “Interview with Willie Morris, Jr.,” Interviewed by Eleanor Bossu and Amy M. Tyson, Voice of Charity Oral History Project, Marillac St. Vincent Family Services/DePaul University Archives, 2013.
[24] “Daughters of charity, including ex-Keokuk nun, stay in riot area.” Herald-Whig Quincy, IL 11 April 1968.
[25] “A Report to the Chicago Community Trust & Marillac House,” April 1989; box 5, folder 9, MSCA.
[26] Mabley’s Report: What We All Can Do When Riots Start” from American 9 April 1968.
[27] “Six Years after West Side Riots,” Chicago Tribune 22 April 1974.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Arthur Southwood, The New World, August 7, 1970, no. 12.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] July 1973-July 1974 Annual Report; box 4, folder 6, MSCA.
[34] “Black Ghetto,” in Hallagan’s “West Side Story.”
[35] “Interview with Willie Morris, Jr.”
[36] Ibid., 17.
[37] July 1973-July 1974 Annual Report.

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