A Race Man

A Race Man

by Bill Droel

It was cold in the parking lot after the funeral, but I lingered long enough to chat with an elderly priest. “We were about to get our first assignments out of seminary,” he began. “A teacher gave me some advice: Stay away from Falls; he’s a race man. Well, I was bold in those days and I replied: No, he’s a man of justice.”

The funeral, celebrated at St. John of the Cross in Western Springs, Illinois, was for Arthur Falls (1901-2000), a medical doctor, a pioneer in race relations and a lifelong Chicago Catholic. He was indeed a “race man” or a militant, but not in the sense of episodic, sloganeering skirmishes that result in little more than superficial media coverage. Falls was confrontational, but consistently worked inside hospitals, schools, housing agencies, businesses, parish committees and more to achieve incremental policy changes.

Lincoln Rice in a new biography of Falls, Healing the Racial Divide (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), supplies some background on my parking lot conversation. From about 1937 to 1942, Falls met regularly with seminarians away from church property to talk about urban issues and race. The group—which totaled about 30 over the years—included Msgr. Jack Egan (1916-2001), Fr. Martin Farrell (1911-1991) and Fr. Howard Matty Hoffman (1916-2004), Rice tells us.

Falls founded and joined scores of organizations in his steady persistence to end racism. A partial list includes serving on the executive board of the Chicago Urban League, facilitating an interracial dialogue group in the Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhood, active member of the Federation of Colored Catholics which became the National Catholic Interracial Federation, committees and ministries in his south side and then Western Springs parishes, founder of Chicago Catholic Interracial Council, founder of Committee to End Discrimination in Medical Institutions, member of Fellowship of Reconciliation and member of Congress of Racial Equality.

There are at least three Catholic Worker Houses in Chicago today. But do its members know who founded the first one here? Arthur Falls in 1936. He is also responsible for integrating the masthead of the New York Catholic Worker newspaper.

All the while, Falls was a husband, father, practicing doctor, a surgeon and for a time chief of staff at Provident Hospital.

Falls “was strongly grounded in Catholic theology,” Rice says. He was particularly animated by the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which holds that each person regardless of status is godly. Falls, of course, was aware that Catholics (including himself) and Catholic institutions did not consistently live out their own beliefs. He was fond of saying that when it comes to the Body of Christ, the doctrine is “mythical not mystical to too many of its members.” And because of this doctrine it is, said Falls, a heresy for Catholics and others to tolerate racial injustice.

No one—white or black—goes to confession—now or back in former times—and admits the sin of racism. Treating racial injustice as a heresy, suggests Healing the Racial Divide, might be more effective than calling it a sin.

Falls believed in the power of moral suasion and appealing to people’s informed conscience. He was a militant, but a militant for interracial justice. Falls believed that black equality benefits blacks and whites alike, explains Karen Joy Johnson in a March 2015 essay for the cyber-publication Religion in American History (www.usreligion.blogspot.com). Even as early as the 1930s this stance put Falls and others against those who wanted black-only organizations. Because of Falls’ insistence on interracial life, Johnson writes, he “refused to attend one of the colored parishes” as so designated by most Catholic clergy in Chicago. Participation in a regular neighborhood parish was thus for Falls a protest.

Falls’ optimism about dialogue was never, Rice continues, uncoupled from “dedication to a long and bitter struggle.” An impulsive, impatient struggle will never bear fruit. Falls plotted campaigns with the precision he brought to his surgery. Only campaigns led by thoughtful people grounded in the virtue of hope will succeed.

We don’t know how Falls would specifically react to current events. However, Rice quotes a 1968 interview. Some protest movements, Falls said, have “a great deal of vocalization and very little cerebration… I realize it’s not as dramatic a cry to shout We want competent teachers instead of We want black teachers… But that’s what’s needed… I’d rather have [those in the classroom] think science than think black…We’ve already heard all the things the white man has done… Now the thing to think about is what do we do now.”

Droel edits a free, print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)