An Alley in Chicago

“United We Stand, Divided We Fall”

Saul Alinsky and Jack Egan sat facing each other across a table at the Erie Cafe, a favorite hangout of Saul’s, tossing out ideas like shuttlecocks, the contest electric enough for waitresses to take notice. “Egan and Alinsky beat each other up,” community organizer Tom Gaudette recalls. “The waiters and waitresses used to stand there and watch these two great minds going at each other.”

Gaudette saw Egan and Alinsky as insightful foils for each other. “Egan could see the motivation, the reason, the why we should do something.” Saul Alinsky could see the how. “So he and Saul were a great team. When they got together it was marvelous.” Gaudette struggles to capture the intense respect the two men had for each other. “Saul just loved Egan, loved him as a priest. `Now there’s a priest,’ Saul would say, and then add, `If you ever tell Egan I said that, I’ll fire you.’ Because Saul knew what a priest was! `But there’s so few of them around,’ he’d say. That’s why he admired Egan.”

For Gaudette, to see Egan say Mass was an event, “so exciting when he gets up there and preaches. He makes the Mass a whole different thing, an experience, alive and real. You go to Mass all the time, it’s so boring. Egan would talk (at Mass) about our common goals. It was marvelous. But that was the atmosphere.” The beauty of Egan’s life, for Gaudette, was his ability to “do both worlds.” He cites Egan training seminarians. “I remember meetings we had at the cathedral every Friday night for months for priests, seminarians, or whoever. It was a very exciting atmosphere where some great people would just take your head and turn it around. That’s where you met all the great people in Chicago. Egan created that.”

Both Egan and Alinsky had a talent for drawing people out. Jack Egan had spent his life uncovering the action by intense and interested queries. Alinsky had a similar gut-deep interest in how people’s lives worked, how they related, how they could be hurt, how they could be helped. Now, the masters of the art practiced on each other at the Erie Cafe. As joyously as they resonated with the badinage, however, these were serious men. Having done their homework—Alinsky always insisted on that—they had a good fix on their mutual concern: how serious was the city’s peril, how could they help.

Alinsky and Egan fit each other like a river fits its banks. If they fascinated each other, it was productively, in the way a Benedictine nun described years later. Sister Mary Benet McKinney heard on retreat that “we get faith from people who fascinate us,” She wrote Jack, whom she found fascinating, about how he gave her faith. “I know that most of all, it is your grounded, consistent commitment to the people of God. Your belief in the Incarnate Word, present in all people, is touchable. It is surely that faith of yours, so obviously alive in your ministry, your relationships, your care, that has given me, over the many years that I have known you, a stronger and more viable faith.”

Surprisingly, Saul Alinsky, a non-practicing Jew whose parents were Orthodox Russian immigrants, felt that same way about Father Egan. Alinsky’s desire to help the little guy was reinforced by Father Egan’s priestly vocation calling him to the same purpose.

They shared also a reliance on the leap of imagination. In Alinsky’s veins ran the same Russian blood as the religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev who taught in the early part of the century that God sent us Christ to make us more creative. For Berdyaev, truth was found through penetration of the environment by a creative act, “a light which breaks through from the transcendent world of the spirit.” He saw man’s greatness in his divine capacity to create.

Alinsky, in that same spirit described by Berdyaev, insisted his organizers be creative. Creative, inspirational, and funny. And this is what their allies in community development saw in Alinsky and Egan: creative imaginations able to conceive of a better future for the people in the city’s neighborhoods. They saw ways to change neighborhoods of which others despaired. At a surface level, it was clear how Alinsky and Egan benefitted each other. Egan was Alinsky’s funnel to the archdiocesan money bags. Alinsky was the archdiocese’s handle on how to organize neighborhood communities facing societal change.

At a more profound level, Saul Alinsky and Jack Egan fed each others’ deep needs to be known and accepted as persons. They could be honest with one another. As Tom Gaudette says of Alinsky, “I’ve never known anyone so honest as Saul. As a result you were honest with him. There were no secrets in his life. You never had any secrets from him.” Alinsky and Egan shared as well their need “to keep the poor from being kicked around.” In that they had powerful allies in Cardinal Stritch; after him, Archbishop Meyer; the chancellor, Monsignor Edward Burke, and the vicar general, Monsignor George Casey. These men saw very clearly that Chicago was at risk from the simmering confrontation between blacks and whites. In 1946 Cardinal Stritch made a strong commitment to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations “that the Catholic Churches of this city are open to Catholics from all minority groups and that this held for the parochial schools attached to the parishes.” He directed the priests of the suburb of Cicero to deliver sermons on the equality of all men and property rights. He counseled parishioners in changing parishes to stay and welcome their new neighbors.

Archdiocesan leaders hoped that Saul Alinsky and his organizers could somehow modulate the population shifts taking place at a disruptive rate. They knew they couldn’t stop the changes. What they hoped for was the integration of black Chicagoans into formerly all-white parishes without violence. They wanted to see the outflow of Chicagoans to the suburbs stemmed—for the good of the city and the good of the parishes.

They understood how limited were their powers. In the 1950s, a Chicago block a week was going from white to black. Churches were no longer anchors to security for parishioners. Perhaps they could be sources of generous response to the changes. The only route even the visionary Alinsky could see to integration was a quota system. “A lot of people didn’t like Saul because they thought he was an integrationist,” Tom Gaudette says. Alinsky was hard, dogmatic, but he wasn’t hard-nosed. He appreciated how aggravating it was for ethnics to live with blacks. Gaudette couldn’t imagine Saul saying, “You must do this.” Saul “related to people gently. He had great respect for suffering people, great respect for people who disagreed with him, but if you were a wise guy . . . wise guys got it right back. Such a nervy guy, so gutsy: he illuminated life.”

Alinsky saw his quota scheme working several ways. He thought whites might accept the quota if they were guaranteed that black population would not exceed five percent in a neighborhood. Another possibility was contiguous white and black neighborhood organizations set up to work together. Their mutual leadership could negotiate agreements on such issues as housing sales and rentals. Sanford Horwitt explains, “Each organization would have accumulated enough power, (Alinsky) theorized, to be able to control real estate and mortgage lending practices, which had so much to do with the stability—or lack of it—in traditional communities.”

The enemies were the panic peddlers, “block-busters.” Jack Egan describes them coming into a community like Presentation Parish after the first blacks bought there. “Panic peddlers would buy up a house worth $20,000 for $15,000. A week later they’d sell it for $26,000 to someone who couldn’t get a mortgage. And had to buy it on contract.” Contract buyers often paid exorbitant interest; they didn’t own their houses until the last payment. Many contract buyers lost their homes to see them resold to other hapless victims. It was an ugly system. The seller was taken. The buyer was taken. The community was taken.

If community organizations could work together to stem blockbusting and contract buying, everybody would benefit. Parishes all over the South Side were hurting. Where to begin? There was some interest in organizing the Grand Boulevard area where Jack Egan had trained with Saul Alinsky. That would have used Alinsky’s template for two contiguous communities, Grand Boulevard and Back of the Yards, one white, one black, working together to solve local problems. Saul Alinsky had organized the white Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council—he was famous for doing it—in the thirties with the help of Joseph Meegan, Alinsky’s first organizer; Bishop Bernard Sheil, and the young curates in the BYNC parishes.

Having first-hand experience of South Side neighborhoods from his training experience, Jack Egan dreamed of developing three neighborhood organizations: one in a changing neighborhood, one in a black neighborhood, and one in an ethnic neighborhood. His choice of where to move first was influenced by Monsignor John McMahon at St. Sabina’s, “a man who should go down in history as a great priest,” according to Father Egan. “He was totally opposed to white neighborhood councils whose only purpose was to keep blacks out of the neighborhood. He wanted to develop a parish where all colors would live in peace.”

Monsignor McMahon had already experienced the trauma of seeing his parish of St. Charles Borromeo change from a totally white parish to a totally black parish, although, by working at it, the parish kept the parochial school integrated for two decades. This time he wanted to keep his church and school permanently integrated. “It had been a painful experience for this genteel and gracious man to be engulfed and overwhelmed by an outpouring of racial hatred,” Sanford Horwitt writes in Let Them Call Me Rebel. Looking for a strategy to prevent a similarly horrendous racial confrontation, Monsignor McMahon talked to Father Egan about neighborhood organization. He talked to Monsignor Vincent Cooke at Catholic Charities about money. He talked to his neighboring pastors about the dilemma of saving their parishes.

Alinsky agreed to develop his first community organization in Chicago in twenty years on the Southwest Side, home of Monsignor McMahon and the autocratic Monsignor Patrick Molloy, whom Jack Egan describes as a “rough and tumble boxer, friend of mobsters, foe of integration, hard-working, two-fisted pastor, friend of Archbishop O’Brien and Mayor Daley.” Also a hot-rodder on Emerald Avenue when it was game time at Comiskey Park.

Father Tom McDonough, chaplain of the Calvert Club at the University of Chicago, had taken Father Egan to Florida for some much-needed recuperation after the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Walking and praying through the tragedy with the mourning families had taken a monstrous toll on the priests involved. “Monsignor Cussen, poor man, never recovered,” Father Egan recalls. “He just sat in his rocker and rocked away the rest of his life.”

Thanks to McDonough, Jack Egan was ready to participate when Alinsky organizers Nicholas von Hoffman, Ed Chambers, and Joe Vilimas began studying the possibilities for an Organization for the Southwest Community in January, 1959. Egan was Alinsky’s liaison to the pastors, vital because he could get their support and bring in the necessary money. “Saul had a fixed rule,” Father Egan recalls. “He insisted that the money for a three-year operation be in the bank prior to the first organizing steps. Once the people begin to take sides, and once political pressure comes in on forces that are offering the money, very few people can withstand the pressure. Not only did the Catholic Church contribute to the Organization for the Southwest Community but also Protestant churches, particularly the Presbyterian, and a few foundations.”

The organizers’ first goal was to set up a neighborhood congress, as inclusive as possible. A congress of delegates from church groups, social and fraternal clubs, neighborhood associations, and local businesses would have status and legitimacy when it adopted a program, elected leaders, and wrote a constitution. Saul Alinsky had done this successfully in Back of the Yards. That neighborhood organization had empowered the people to change conditions in their neighborhood in ways they themselves wanted them changed. This was the hope for the Organization for the Southwest Community. The young Chambers, as an ex-seminarian, was charged with studying the Protestant churches on the Southwest Side, the way Egan and Hunt had studied the Grand Boulevard area only three years before.

The three organizers worked an area fifty blocks long and thirty blocks wide bounded by Sixty-seventh Street, State Street, the city limits, and Western Avenue. They found the bulk of the people moderate in their views and content with the present condition of their neighborhoods. Offsetting the moderates were a passel of ultraconservatives (whose goal was to keep blacks out) and a cluster of liberals who wanted blacks in, integrated in. Von Hoffman and Vilimas slowly gained the confidence of potential allies at the big Catholic parishes, even people who had to be converted like the redoubtable Monsignor Molloy at St. Leo’s.

In the spring of 1959, preliminary contacts made, the organizers called together three hundred community leaders from eighty organizations to the Park Manor VFW hall to form the Provisional Organization of Southwest Communities (POSC). There were Catholic pastors there, including Monsignors Patrick Molloy and John McMahon, and a dozen Protestant ministers. There were also representatives from civic and fraternal organizations, and business people in the neighborhood. Each of them had a stake in Saul Alinsky’s vision of blacks of a similar class moving into their neighborhoods and being accepted by their parishioners and members and customers.

As the provisional organization worked to stop blockbusting, Egan had a hand in the proceedings. In addition to the liaison he provided from the archdiocese to Southwest Side pastors, he filled in where asked, accepting such responsibilities as reading the cardinal’s statement on housing discrimination at hearings of the president’s Commission on Civil Rights. Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh, whom Jack Egan knew from their mutual association with Catholic Action activities, presided at the hearings as the commission’s chairperson, listening to witnesses’ assessments of discrimination in Chicago.

Chicago neighborhoods were tense with apprehension and the vague need to ascribe blame for what was really simply the city’s demographics. The cardinal’s statement Jack read did not mention quotas, although Alinsky’s did. Even so, the two statements were associated in people’s minds (Nick von Hoffman had written them both), and the cardinal was tarred with Alinsky’s brush. Reaction from people hungry for a scapegoat was negative and dramatic. Groups such as We the People red-baited Saul Alinsky, ignoring his close ties with the Catholic Church. They illogically assumed, or artfully affected to believe, that anyone in favor of any form of integration was a Communist. They asked why the cardinal was abetting a Saul Alinsky?

All through the summer and early fall Alinsky’s organizers worked with the Provisional Organization of Southwest Communities to bring participants into the founding convention they were planning for October 24, 1959.

When the beautiful October day came, businessmen and clergymen, union members and bank presidents, blacks and whites surged through the school doors. Shortly after three o’clock that afternoon, there were more than l,000 delegates packed in the auditorium of Calumet High School: 104 delegates from civic associations, churches, labor unions, neighborhood organizations, and businesses. It was a triumph of organization, especially because it included a delegation from a black Methodist church. The delegates worked until midnight to ratify a constitution, elect officers, and adopt their program. Jack Egan, in the back of the school auditorium watching the unlikely combination of confederates side by side, tingled with hope and pride and humility. It was “one of the thrills of my life,” he says, to witness this experiment in democracy engineered by his Alinsky connections and accepted by such disparate pastors as Patrick Molloy and John McMahon. Seeing this outpouring of concern and cooperation, he allowed himself the momentary fancy of a deep dream of peace in the Southwest area of the city as local banker Donald O’Toole was elected OSC president and Monsignor McMahon an OSC vice-president.

During its first year the Organization for the Southwest Community educated its members in four areas: changing neighborhoods, civil rights, block busting, and real estate practices. When they held meetings on these controversial issues in preparation for their first anniversary, speakers represented a wide spectrum: the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, the Chicago Urban League, and the Chicago Archdiocese.

When the Resolutions committee met, chairman Peter Fitzpatrick announced it was time “to get down to business and come up with a program the community can stand on.” The group heard strong pleas for racial equality and an end to discrimination against blacks seeking to move into white neighborhoods. There were few dissenting voices when members were asked to keep an open door policy with regard to blacks and to demand that local business owners hire employees on the basis of ability alone, without regard to race, creed, or national origin.

The chairman of the real estate practices committee asked support for a six-point program to pinpoint the minority segment of real estate dealers who profited from their exploitation of neighborhood changes. Jack Egan strongly applauded the proposed code of ethics the committee wanted real estate dealers to sign, agreeing it should be implemented to the letter.

The Organization for the Southwest Community was an energetic and valiant rear-ditch effort to stem developments demographics made inevitable. But it couldn’t hold the people in the neighborhoods (although it did have other good effects) once Saul Alinsky pulled out his trained organizers. As Jack Egan says, “The first convention is always dramatic, magnificent. This was the first time a black church was represented in an area where so many people were racist. It was a great victory for Monsignor McMahon. Unfortunately, the Organization for the Southwest Community needed a top-notch organizer to keep that thing moving. Saul did a disastrous thing in pulling his two key organizers out of OSC shortly after the first convention.

“The organization fell apart. The neighborhood didn’t have the strong leaders to integrate the community. There was no one to evaluate and train the leaders they had. White people were panicked by the real estate people, and there was no force to prevent real estate people from panicking them. Putting up a For Sale sign down the block. Telling people, `If you don’t get out now, you won’t be able to sell your house.’”

There were bitter days. Monsignor McMahon, considered saintly by many in the neighborhood, carefully visited every black family that moved into his parish and welcomed each child into the parish school. The majority of his white parishioners loyally held on to their homes until a seventeen-year-old white boy was shot at Seventy-eighth and Racine Avenue as he was talking with his friends across the street from St. Sabina’s community center. A black boy held the gun.

It is hard to see how any Alinsky organizing team could have held the parish together once everyone’s subliminal nightmare was played out on Seventy-eighth Street. Immediately, families began to look for new homes, a thousand in 1965, another thousand in 1966. As Monsignor John McMahon, who’d given his life for his people, told Jack Egan, “The saddest thing that ever happened to me, Jack, was having my finest parishioners move out in the night without ever saying goodbye.” Jack Egan shakes his head and grieves, “It broke his heart.”

As Monsignor Harry Koenig summed up the situation in the archdiocesan history of Monsignor Molloy’s St. Leo the Great Church, “The parish was caught in a web of hatred, tension, frustration, and misunderstanding. Unscrupulous real estate agents used `blockbusting’ tactics to pressure whites to sell their homes. These buildings were resold to black families at inflated prices.” Twenty years later, St. Leo the Great was a flourishing black parish. Of the 700 registered families in 1978, 350 had close ties to the parish school where 550 students were enrolled.

A fringe benefit salvaged from the OSC work was increased understanding and regard between clergypersons. Methodist minister Jim Reed told Alinsky biographer Sandy Horwitt that he would say “that was the first time I had a sense of Protestant and Catholic clergy actually sitting down together and talking about issues.” Reflecting attitudes from the past, some Presbyterians warned one of the ministers he “could be defrocked” for working with Saul Alinsky and his Catholic allies. He gamely took that chance. Cardinal Meyer (he was raised to the red hat November 16, 1959, a year to the day after he was installed as archbishop) risked unrest in his church when he told pastors of Roman Catholic parishes in the OSC area, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

The risk paid off ecumenically. The Organization for the Southwest Community failed its main goal of integrating the community. Yet it tempered the bitterness of inevitable change. It also convinced many clergypersons that they could work profitably together, a change no one would have called inevitable. This could have had enormous effect in a city where people so identified with their churches if only church members had kept pace with their leaders—and death hadn’t intervened as it did so tragically in just a few years.

Before that disappointing denouement, the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs, that Jack Egan initiated under the nose of Mayor Daley, united in 1959 to expose the city’s failure to house its people adequately. More than 250 rabbis and other clergymen met at the Saddle and Sirloin Club to plan a city-wide conference on “Religion, Community Life, and Chicago’s Housing.”

Mayor Richard M. Daley, as luncheon speaker, defended Chicago as “one of the nation’s leaders in the rebuilding of its city.” Not true, insisted the religious leaders. Jack Egan boldly countered the mayor’s chauvinism by describing some neighborhoods as “eaten away with physical deterioration because, among other things, the building department lacks an imaginative and forceful policy and because our municipal courts, with a few notable exceptions, treat the pernicious slum landlords with gentle continuances and petty fines.”

Dr. Alvin Pitcher of the federated theological faculty of the University of Chicago, agreed. He told morning sessions that the Chicago City Council, the Chicago Housing Authority, the Chicago Dwellings Association, the Community Conservation Board, and the Land Clearance Commission had “not provided the needed leadership.” He was very strong in his condemnation, saying that “we have permitted the situation to drift without leadership to a point where we are sitting on a keg of dynamite.” Rabbi Jacob Weinstein stoutly warned that clergypersons must take the leadership in inducing members of their congregations to remain and help their Chicago neighborhoods instead of fleeing to the suburbs.

It would be hard to recapture now the lightheadedness members of the clergy experienced when the walls between churches were breached in the 1960s. Four years before, the gently restrained Cardinal Stritch pecked at his typewriter in his imposing, multi-chimneyed residence on North State Parkway, choosing the appropriate words to forbid any Roman Catholic from attending meetings of the World Council of Churches in nearby Evanston. Now his successor was telling public meetings how important was “the need to work and cooperate with churches of other faiths in regard to problems affecting the welfare of all.”

Here was a major shift. Here was reward for disappointment tolerated and frustration swallowed. There were many clergy who risked their theology, their sociology, their brave new hearts, their bracing dedication (Saul Alinsky said of ministers he trained, “They burn with a pure white flame.”) on this common cause. They shared in the marvelous enterprise Jack Egan calls “the Golden Age of community organizing.”

They did not achieve the impossible goals they set for making straight the topsy-turvy ways of their city. Too many indigestible lumps had been added to its boiling civic broth as one immigrant group after another pushed on its predecessors. But none of those clergypersons has forgotten the esprit de corps that made it wonderful to wake up in the morning during those hopeful, frenetic, stormy, baffling—and exalted—days.

Next Chapter . . .