An Alley in Chicago

“Jack Was Starting Everybody’s Fire”

If the Church is the Mystical Body, as St. Paul taught—“And you are Christ’s body, organs of it depending on each other”—some people would class Jack Egan as the endorphins. Like those chemicals in the blood that give runners their high, he gets into people’s blood and provokes euphoria and change.

For transplanted Chicagoan Nina Polcyn Moore, Father Egan was such an agent of change. She first felt this force in him in 1955 when her boss, Archbishop Bernard J. Sheil, peremptorily resigned as head of the large assortment of enterprises he controlled under the umbrella of the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). Nina was connected to the bishop’s Sheil School. She’d been hired away from her Milwaukee schoolteaching in 1942 by the founder of Friendship House (and friend of the bishop), Baroness Catherine de Hueck. Recruiting apostolic types for the bishop, the Baroness invited Nina to Chicago “to change the world,” in the no-small-plans parlance of the apostolates. She was to be assistant director of the bishop’s adult education effort. In time, Nina had slipped over to the other cultural arm of the CYO, St. Benet’s Library and Book Shop. The storied atmosphere there was more to her liking.

“I was vastly more interested in the St. Benet operation than in the Sheil School,” Nina says. She saw at St. Benet’s “tremendous possibilities, the germ, the gem of an idea that could blossom out into a cultural oasis, something that could vivify what was happening in the Church world.”

In the fruit-basket-upset following Sheil’s resignation, Cardinal Stritch and his officers at the chancery office sorted out the many parts of Bishop Sheil’s empire. Monsignor Edward J. Kelly was responsible for the disposition of St. Benet’s. Kelly—“a priest who wore white socks,” according to Nina—was a “very practical man who in this instance proved his impracticality,” according to Jack Egan. Approached by Jack, he agreed that Nina Polcyn should have St. Benet’s “so long as she keeps the rental library operating.” Jack was “dumfounded, speechless, because within that store there was at least $25,000 to $45,000 worth of merchandise.” And it was Nina’s—lock, stock and book inventory.

The lending library was widely cherished as a resource for Chicago’s Catholic community. First organized in her bedroom at a South Side residential hotel by St. Benet founder Sara Benedicta O’Neill, it might have passed for the cultural bargain of the century even by the Depression standards of its beginnings. “A card issued by Miss O’Neill cost twenty-five cents,” according to Nina Polcyn, “and you could take out books for life.” Nina assesses Miss O’Neill’s business arrangements as “totally unrealistic but beautifully generous.”

Card in hand, any comer was welcomed to a bookshop haunted by Catholic writers Chesterton, Belloc, Mauriac, Greene, and Nina’s friends Dorothy Day (with whom she went to the Soviet Union), and Peter Maurin, as well as the French authors who told stories of worker priests and lay apostles. “We thought we were quite liberal to be carrying the complete Mauriac, Waugh, and Graham Greene. And we had a good laugh when one of our readers felt these books should be made available only to qualified members of the Altar and Rosary sodalities. At St. Benet’s every day was a rich adventure.” Today magazine called the shop the Chicago Catholic counterpart of Ciro’s or the Stork Club, New York centers for people-in-the-know: “If you want to meet anyone active in the apostolate—whether it be Father Reinhold who hails from the state of Washington or Maisie Sheed, a New Yorker, or England’s Donald Attwater or just a girl who has found her apostolate jerking sodas at Walgreen’s—the thing to do is camp at St. Benet’s.” It was a pleasant thing to do. As well as a clearing house, St. Benet’s was the place to track what was avant-garde in Catholic Chicago, where to find the classical Tenebrae service, the best Easter vigil, the most astute confessor, the latest in the liturgy. Catholic novelist Joe Dever dropped in daily. “At the height of the Thomas Merton trend,” Nina recalls, “he’d shout loudly at the door, `Got any Seeds of Concupiscence?’”

Over the years, benefactors charmed by Miss O’Neill’s discriminating contribution to the intellectual respectability of the city’s Catholic population, including Bishop Sheil, upgraded her location several times. As the operation grew more sophisticated, Miss O’Neill gave over the book shop to Bishop Sheil to run as part of the Sheil School. He paid the (meager) salaries. She poured the tea and bought the books.

When Jack Egan engineered Nina’s takeover, he gave her the keys to 300 South Wabash, a corner location with considerable potential. He then waved his plenipotentiary wand to turn her into “merchant princess and trafficker in crucifixes,” in her words. As he had a vision for the Church and for the city, Jack Egan had a vision for St. Benet’s as a “jewel box” from whose cache the people in the movements could draw the support and sustenance of the best of Catholic literature and art. The shop was an actual physical haven for traveling Catholic eminences caught between trains at a time when every cross-country traveler had to change trains in the City of the Big Shoulders. Sara O’Neill, in her day, cosseted patrons with tea on Saturday afternoons (or thimble-sized glasses of Benedictine brandy and “high-class crackers” in the back room for “visiting firemen of note”), community Compline, and the chance to join her weekly Saturday evening dinner group at the Congress Hotel—Dutch treat.

To fortify the hesitant, idealistic young Nina Polcyn’s ability to build on the success of Sara Benedicta O’Neill, Jack Egan rallied a top-flight board of trustees, including Cana board president Art Schaefer and early board member Bob Podesta; CFM pioneer John Clark; Jim Tobin, president of Wieboldt’s Department Store; Jack’s lawyer friend Jim O’Shaughnessy; banker Roy Andersen, and an advertising man. Jack served as board chairperson. Explaining the high quality of the board members’ experience, Nina shrugs. “Jack knew everybody who could do anything,” she says, adding, “You could see the fine Italian hand of whatever the Cana Conference or CFM had been in people’s lives” in their willingness to use their talents for whatever was asked of them.

It didn’t surprise Nina that Jack organized her board out of his cassock pocket, so to speak. “Jack is a real renaissance man,” Nina says. “It wasn’t enough for him to have just the Cana Conference. He liked nothing better than a new challenge: a fresh file in a fresh folder in a fresh filing cabinet.”

The operation showed Jack Egan, in Nina’s words, “as a negotiator par excellence, behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, next door and next week.” Generous: he engineered the archdiocese’s bequest of a going enterprise. Feminist: he advocated a woman owner instead of a woman managing an archdiocesan enterprise. Gregarious: he drew on his wide-ranging acquaintances to arrange a top-of-the-form board of trustees. Enthusiastic: he believed in the shop’s potential and Nina’s competence. Far-seeing: he knew the importance of an intellectual base for the development of the Church in Chicago.

With Nina and St. Benet’s preserved, he’d secured “the thrill of the browse,” in Nina’s phrase, for the movement people. For her he provided his enthusiasm and his belief that she could do the job. Like Peg Burke in the early CFM group Jack chaplained, however, Nina was aware that Jack expected her to produce quid for his quo. She was required to perform. As she puts it pointedly, “Jack kept a stiletto to my spine.” Every meeting of the board was an assessment of her effectiveness.

“If Jack was peddling this vision abroad,” she reflects, scrambling her fairy tales, “like Little Red Riding Hood leaving breadcrumbs along the way, you better pick them up because otherwise you’re going to be dead, friend. That’s his style.” If you produced, so did Jack. The Lord Mayor of Dublin addressed the crowd at the gala opening of Nina’s St. Benet’s. Asked how she lured a lord mayor to her tiny bookstore, Nina waves her hand like a wand. “You know Jack Egan. Three phone calls and the Lord Mayor came.”

A reader of books, a giver of books, a believer in books, Jack Egan wanted St. Benet’s to succeed. Remembering the intensity of his involvement, Nina reviews the list of people Jack Egan started on their way from the fifteen-year-old Pat Hollahan Judge to Cana chaircouple Art and Virginia Schaefer. “You have to get a vision someplace, you have to get on fire, you have to get ignited to change the face of the earth.” From Nina’s point of view, Jack “was starting everybody’s fire. That’s the way he was. You couldn’t not do it.” As his network grew, he had more people to call on, like the board members he collected for Nina. Whoever he was with, “he would learn from that person.” Then he would also “use that person,” in the sense that he considered anyone he met a contact, should he need their expertise. Nina stipulates that she doesn’t mean “use” in a pejorative sense when she says it of Jack’s operation. “People wanted to be useful to him.”

Not everybody felt that way. British priest John Fitzsimons, in noting the same quality in Jack, called it manipulation. He suggested that some people would say that Jack was a manipulator admiringly. Others “would say it meanly.” He said it with admiration.

Asked if Jack Egan had ever manipulated him, Father Fitzsimons answered quickly, “Oh, no.” Then he thought back and smiled wryly, “At least I don’t think so. That’s the subtlety of it. You’re anesthetized.” He explained the mechanism of that anesthetization. “One way, after a time you so respect him as an operator that you say to yourself, `That must be the best way; Jack knows.’ The other is, he will add a bit of flattery so you think if I do this, I will please Jack, so you do it.”

Father Fitzsimons would have agreed that Jack Egan never shied away from change as many contemporaries in the Church did. Rather, he galvanized it. In the early 1960s, change was the coin of the realm, hope the currency of movers and shakers. John Kennedy in the White House was drawing on young people’s idealism to lure them to the Peace Corps. Pope John XXIII was opening a window to give the Holy Spirit a chance to blow out some of the calcified curial cobwebs holding back modulations in the Church’s course. Adam Clayton Powell was organizing the blacks in Harlem to improve their working conditions. Religious people of all faiths shared a sense that they could be part of the changes fumbling for expression.

For his part, Jack Egan was pressing out from his new base as head of the archdiocesan Office of Urban Affairs into Protestant circles, Jewish circles, black circles, community organizations. He drew into those circles people from his own Church who’d been marking time, scrabbling for ways to spark changes they saw necessary. As at Cana, some of the people he drew in were lay, some clerical. Many were nuns. The mixed board of activists he chose for the Office of Urban Affairs were people ready to experience change even as they tried to effect it.

They, in turn, affected others. Groups of laypeople and Sisters formed. Jack Egan was instrumental in helping Sister Mary William, a Daughter of Charity at Marillac House, and Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney organize the Urban Apostolate of the Sisters to train and support fellow religious in their difficult job of teaching and ministering in the inner city. Sister Mary Benet caught the spirit of those changing times—and changing Sisters—when she described a very young, beautiful Holy Family of Nazareth Sister, “in full habit as most of us were in those days, wide-eyed, eager, discovering a whole new world.” For this young Sister, the new world was the Organization for the Southwest Community.

One afternoon, Sister Mary Benet was meeting with ten or twelve women who’d been in community organization for about six months to find out what problems they’d encountered, what support they needed. “We sat in a circle,” she remembers. “The question was very simply put to them: `How are you feeling about the six months of working on the street?’”

When the question got to the young Holy Family of Nazareth Sister, Sister Benet recalls how totally alive she looked, eyes sparkling, cheeks aglow. “Well,” she said, “it has really been something! I have gone from a community where our motto is `Oh, my Jesus, all for thee’ to this community where the motto is, `We don’t take no shit from no one.’”

Somehow that remark captured the reality of the city. So long as that Sister, and hundreds like her, quietly plied flash cards before first graders, they were no threat to the status quo. Once they confronted the trauma their first-graders faced on the streets, the Sisters menaced the city’s tranquillity as surely as Martin Luther King, Jr., disturbed the peace of the racists in the South. For what those Sisters were trying to do was empower the powerless of the city.

If blacks had no power in Chicago, they also had no history in Chicago. At least as far as the power structure was concerned. Newspaper men of that era routinely screened out stories about blacks. Black accomplishments were not news any more than black deaths were. Even as their numbers increased they remained invisible—in Ralph Ellison’s sense—to city residents. In 1910 they lived in thirteen of the city’s thirty-five wards, their highest concentration even then in the Second and Third Wards between Twenty-second and Thirty-ninth Streets and from State Street east to the lake. As the black population increased from 44,103 in 1910 to 233,903 in 1930, the Black Belt firmed up: Thirty-first Street to Fifty-fifth Street along State Street and Federal Street.

At the turn of the century blacks worshipped in the basement of St. Mary’s Church on Wabash Avenue, “but they were made welcome at any of the other churches,” according to the archdiocesan history. That may be true. But their priest John Augustine Tolton, the first Negro priest to be ordained for the United States, was forced to study at the Sacred College of the Propaganda in Rome. He was refused admittance to any American seminary.

By 1930, in spite of resistance to change in the neighborhoods, there were many more preeminently black parishes and others on the verge of going black. Monsignor Koenig tells in his archdiocesan history how organizations like the Woodlawn Property Owners’ League promoted racially restrictive agreements to keep blacks from buying property in white neighborhoods. About ninety-five percent of the homes in the Washington Park subdivision in the western edge of Holy Cross Parish in the Woodlawn area of the South Side, for instance, were “covenanted.” They couldn’t be sold to persons of “one eighth part or more negro blood.” This practice was widespread. During the thirties, half of city residences were traded under such restrictive arrangements.

Finally, not even covenants could stem the inevitable. In spite of them, the Washington Park subdivision did go black between 1938 and 1940. St. Anselm, to the west of Holy Cross, was designated a black parish in 1932. The area east of Cottage Grove Avenue changed in the 1950s as the black population of Woodlawn increased from 31,329 in 1950 to 72,397 in 1960.

Father Martin Farrell, assigned as pastor of Holy Cross Church in July 1956, (“another wonderful priest” cut to the Monsignor John McMahon mold, according to Jack Egan) saw his black parishioners at Holy Cross put upon by the city. How could he help them help themselves? The co-pastors of the First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn wrestled with the same ugly reality. Dr. Ulysses B. Blakeley summed up the situation: “We were watching a community dying for lack of leaders, a community that had lost hope in the decency of things and people.”

If the people had lost hope, Dr. Blakeley hadn’t lost hope in them. He told Jane Jacobs for an article in the May 1962 Architectural Forum that he and the other religious leaders didn’t look at Woodlawn as a kind of zoo or jungle as outsiders did. “Such people may mean well, but they choke us.” Local leaders thought that any “effort would be futile unless our own people could direct it, choose their own goals and work for them, grow in the process and have a sense again of the rightness of things.”

Imaginatively, they turned to Saul Alinsky. “Woodlawn itself is the most disorganized community in the United States,” Father Farrell wrote him. “There is no leadership. On the other hand, I have found many ordinary people in the community waiting for somebody to lead them to effective democratic organization according to American and Alinsky principles.” About the time Saul heard from Father Farrell, he was also hearing from Jack Egan. Saul had organized a changing community in Chicago. Now would he organize a black community and a poor, ethnic community?

Father Farrell was pressuring Father Egan, almost daily, as well as Monsignor Vincent Cooke at Catholic Charities. Saul was resisting the notion of organizing Woodlawn, as was organizer Nick von Hoffman who had no desire to tangle once again with the University of Chicago looming on Woodlawn’s northern border.

But Father Farrell was not easily deterred. Once he got seed money, a promise of fifty thousand dollars contingent on his raising the other money he needed, from his friend Monsignor Cooke at Catholic Charities, he called a meeting. A year after Cardinal Meyer blessed OSC’s start at Monsignor Patrick Gleeson’s Christ the King rectory, Father Martin Farrell was hosting in his rectory a group including Dr. Blakeley and his co-minister Dr. Charles Leber of the First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn. They launched a new community organization, the Temporary Woodlawn Organization.

Archdiocesan support for this enterprise was as crucial as recruiting Saul Alinsky. They managed both. “It was a miraculous thing,” Jack says. “I was alone with the cardinal and Saul Alinsky. The cardinal made a commitment for $150,000 for three years, $50,000 a year. I’ll never forget the scene. It was something that impressed me very, very much. They didn’t sign any contract. The cardinal had confidence in Saul. Saul always prided himself that a handshake was his contract. That was his bond. That was his word. He would fulfill what he had promised.”

“I was standing there quietly when they shook hands,” Jack recalls. The five foot eleven Saul Alinsky looked up at the six foot six cardinal. “Now, Your Eminence,” Alinsky said, “I hope you realize there will be conflict and controversy when we do this work. We’ll have to take on the Daley machine which is just ripping this neighborhood apart, and some other bureaucracies.”

As Jack remembers the seminal meeting, the cardinal replied with the same gentle determination that served him unwaveringly at the Vatican Council in Rome five years later. “Mr. Alinsky, if the work is worthwhile, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether there is conflict or controversy. Even though you and I don’t share the same faith, Mr. Alinsky, there is nothing more controversial than a Man hanging on a cross.”

Thus was the stage readied for a second engagement between the Alinsky/Churches coalition and the University of Chicago. Woodlawn bordered the university. Nicholas von Hoffman was aware that the university was already buying up land in Woodlawn for what officials called the new South Campus project, another barrier reef to separate the scholastic community from the ghetto to the south. Muggings and robberies were becoming more common on the Midway, the grassy moat between the university and the Woodlawn neighborhood. From the university’s point of view, a barrier was absolutely necessary. From von Hoffman’s point of view, any gain for the university would be at the expense of the poor to the south who stood to lose some of their few amenities if the university preempted the grassy area of the Midway used as a park by the people of Woodlawn, as well as considerable housing stock.

What was needed, as local clergypersons saw it, was a powerful black community group to counterbalance the university’s acknowledged power. A united group could withstand the urban renewal pattern of reserving the new residential stock for the middle class and dumping blacks into ever more deplorable housing. A strong organization would provide, in time, what Saul called “a regenerative force” to improve conditions for all the people living in Woodlawn. Saul believed, as he told the Field Foundation, that “if even one substantial and powerful Negro organization were in existence now on the city’s South Side, interracial cooperation could become a reality. Then, once men and women of both races are working together and getting to know each other as persons, we can only hope that people will judge each other as individuals, not as faceless members of groups.” That was a powerful argument for a neighborhood organization, one that religious leaders could support.

Young Presbyterian professionals like Douglas Still of the Church Federation; David Ramage, head of the urban-church department of the Presbytery, and Chuck Leber of the First Woodlawn Church, garnered a Presbyterian contribution of $22,000 to augment the archdiocesan funding. When the Schwarzhaupt Foundation provided another $69,000, Saul Alinsky had his “money in the bank.” The Temporary Woodlawn Organization was born on January 5, 1961, with a name, temporary officers, and an issue around which to unite the community. Father Farrell would be a vice president of TWO as Monsignor John McMahon was of OSC.

Sandy Horwitt likens the organizing process to magic. He quotes Nicholas von Hoffman in Let Them Call Me Rebel:

It’s a very strange thing. You go somewhere, and you know nobody. You drive up in a car, and you know nobody, and you’ve got to organize it into something that it’s never been before . . . You don’t have much going for you. You don’t have prestige, you don’t have muscle, you’ve got no money to give away. All you have are your wits, charm, and whatever you can put together. So you had better form a very accurate picture of what is going on, and you had better not bring in too many a priori maps (because) if you do, you’re just not going to get anywhere.

The area abounded in organizations, churches, block clubs, according to Father Egan, all headed up by people with some native flair as Pied Pipers. To observers who thought of poorer neighborhoods as unorganized, it was surprising how many natural groupings there were. Alinsky’s organizers found some of the most promising leaders in pool hall, barber shop, and beauty salon operators. Natural organizers, “they all had twenty-five, maybe fifty, people who listened to them,” Egan says admiringly. A great part of an organizer’s skill is putting aside any such conventional wisdom as the notion a poor neighborhood doesn’t have its own leaders. A good organizer seeks out the leaders who are there. He or she also encourages potentially unifying issues to rise to the surface like air bubbles through an aquarium. Talking to people in Woodlawn, von Hoffman, Richard Harmon and Bob Squires found that, in addition to the threat of imminent dispossession if the university succeeded in another urban renewal coup, the people in Woodlawn suffered other indignities. There was a pattern, for instance, of local merchants cheating their customers through short weights, overcharging, and hidden interest charges. Could one of these issues motivate community involvement to the flash point needed to fuse them into an irresistible force? asked TWO organizers looking for a spark to ignite the community.

In another part of the country, groups of blacks and whites were working together to effect even more startling change. Freedom Riders, blacks and whites together, were traveling through the South on buses to test compliance with a new Supreme Court decision. Segregation was now outlawed on interstate transportation. Until that decision, blacks traveling from North to South had had to go to the back of the bus when the wheels rolled over the invisible—but mutually understood—Mason and Dixon line.

Now there were black riders courageously cleaving to the front of the bus as interstate buses rolled into Southern cities. Whites accompanied them for moral support, as witnesses, and, where it was possible, protection.

Jack Egan and the people organizing Woodlawn rejoiced in the entries into Southern cities that were peaceful. They heard about other cities where Freedom Riders were met by crowds flailing chains and axes. A TWO volunteer who’d left Chicago to ride the buses with an interracial group sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality was one of the riders attacked. Hospitalized, he called Nick von Hoffman. Could Nick organize a public meeting to make Chicago aware of what was going on? The Freedom Riders needed support.

Nick told Sandy Horwitt that he personally doubted that TWO could mount an effective rally for the Freedom Riders. However, the TWO executive committee wanted to go ahead. They believed their people were looking for an opportunity to show their support. They were right. Hundreds of people turned up, filling not only the big gymnasium at St. Cyril’s Church, but also the foyer and even the stairs. Von Hoffman may have hesitated initially rather than embarrass the embryo TWO organization. But he could hear when the people spoke with their bodies. At three in the morning after the rally, he called Saul Alinsky and suggested they should drop their current plans and “work on the premise that this is the whirlwind.” Alinsky, sleepy maybe but equally responsive, immediately agreed with his lieutenant on the scene. They’d found their issue in the gut of those galvanized Woodlawn residents. Now they had leaders and rallying point.

Freedom in the North was not represented by riding at the front of the bus. In Chicago freedom was electing candidates truly representative of their constituents, a freedom not yet in place for the blacks of Woodlawn. That process began with voting. In 1961, through a political fluke, every voter in Illinois had to re-register. Why not organize their own Freedom Ride to register the blacks of Woodlawn en masse? TWO organizers wondered. The city’s power structure would be forced to take notice. Up to this time, the city’s administration had had nothing to fear from black voters. According to Harvard Professor James Q. Wilson, co-author of City Politics, there had been “no Negro organizations, or no group of Negro leaders, in a position to . . . force larger issues by mounting a massive, vocal, and sustained demand for race goals.”

It was important for the city’s power structure to experience the potential power of the city’s hitherto powerless. It was equally important for the people of Woodlawn to get a sense of their own power. It wasn’t that there wasn’t black representation in the city. However, black power broker Congressman William Dawson, committeeman of the Second Ward, kept his place in Mayor Daley’s inner circle by defusing any of his constituents’ demands that might disrupt the city’s equilibrium. As some people saw it, he didn’t press for social change, nor did he want anyone else doing it. He kept fair employment, open housing, and other efforts toward real institutional improvement off his docket.

Not surprisingly for such a canny manipulator, he had his troops on the spot when TWO organized an impressively large bus caravan to link into the Freedom Riding buses in the South. Woodlawn voters would ride their buses for a freedom, too, theirs the freedom to vote. To make a strong showing, TWO needed organizers to go from door to door explaining their strategy and recruiting their freedom riders. They had to raise money to hire the buses. They needed money for the signs advertising their goals—“Better Housing.” “Vote.” “Jobs.”

A key commandment in Alinsky’s decalogue decreed that an organizer never does for a group what it can do for itself. If the TWO Freedom Ride was to be successful, then the people themselves would have to raise the funds to hire the busses. As Nicholas von Hoffman told Sandy Horwitt, “We had these endless fund-raisers for the busses. At one apartment house after another. We had chicken dinners, barbecues, we even had hookers running fund-raisers.”

That Saturday morning event when twenty-five hundred black voters boarded forty-six yellow buses on the Midway south of the University of Chicago exuded that same combination of exultation and latent fear that makes a crowd tense at a Cape Canaveral shuttle launch. The black pastor at the Pentecostal Apostolic Church of God, the Reverend Arthur Brazier, remembers riding in that registration caravan as “one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.”

Congressman Dawson’s people stood at the buses cautioning those boarding that they were forfeiting the favors regularly dispensed by the Democratic machine. Vainly. The people of Woodlawn no longer wanted to be given favors like children. This was a first step in creating a world in which they could manage their own futures. Arthur Brazier explains how imperative a call that was: “You have to remember that the black people in Chicago were practically powerless at that time. Plantation politics were played in the city, and of course we were part of the plantation. We had no entrée into the power structure of the city.”

Ordinarily, the voter registration office would have closed at noon. But Mayor Daley gave out the word that the offices should remain open until every person on those forty buses was duly registered. The organizers had banked on this political astuteness on Daley’s part. They knew he didn’t want the papers headlining stories of potential voters stymied by the political process. The blacks in the city, no longer willing to be invisible, were creating what Charles Silberman calls in Crisis in Black and White “the first successful attempt anywhere in the United States to mobilize the residents of a Negro slum into a large and effective organization.”

Once it was organized, TWO went on to address other issues. Ministers worked with local businessmen to create a Code of Business Ethics. After they’d introduced the code with a big parade, they set up a registered scale at a local Catholic church one Sunday morning. Shoppers brought packages purchased at suspect markets along with their sales slips. When proof of cheating was established, it was publicized. Merchants who didn’t want to go out of business signed a “Square Deal” agreement with TWO.

To get action on the broken windows, burst pipes, and temperamental boilers they’d complained about perennially with no relief, Woodlawn residents organized rent strikes. When pickets carried signs in front of their landlords’ suburban homes proclaiming, “Your Neighbor Is a Slumlord,” many landlords agreed to make long-postponed repairs.

What worried Woodlawn parents most was the quality of their children’s education. They knew their neighborhood schools were inferior. Clergymen, including Jack Egan, walked in the protest marches when the Superintendent of Schools refused to deal with the irate parents. A delegation of eighteen local pastors, Protestant and Catholic, organized a sit-in at Inland Steel where the president of the school board was an executive.

Reverend Arthur Brazier was elected president of The Woodlawn Organization at its founding meeting in the Southmoor Hotel in March 1962. Disciplined and dependable, this seasoned preacher had the necessary confidence to understand that whites still had a role to fill in this complicated urban quadrille he’d been elected to dance in. White leaders like Jack Egan were necessary buffers between the blacks getting the feel of autonomy and the white power structure of the city. Brazier remembers an occasion when Saul Alinsky, Chuck Leber, “and any number of men and women,” met for lunch at the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue. “I was the only black. We sat an hour without anyone serving us.” When they asked what was going on, the maitre d’ informed the group that blacks were not served in the CAA dining room. “We ended up having our lunch in the basement. I raise that point,” Bishop Brazier says, “to show that Jack Egan could move in circles black people could not move in, and he would be able to defend what TWO was doing.”

When asked whether TWO could have been organized equally successfully without him, Jack Egan minimizes his role, suggesting that Father Farrell was the indispensable Catholic presence. “I wasn’t that essential. I served as a buffer, a mediator, between the chancery office and The Woodlawn Organization. My role was to attend meetings, to give support, to interpret, to walk beside. They looked at me as the voice of the cardinal in The Woodlawn Organization.”

From Arthur Brazier’s place at that table in the CAA basement, Jack looked like a unique asset for the people of Woodlawn. “He has consistently been on the side of the oppressed people, the dispossessed people, the poor, the people the system took advantage of,” he insists. Unlike a Congressman Dawson who used his black power base for his own ends, Egan “has had a tremendous effect on the conscience of the city,” according to Brazier, “because he has tried to bring his influence to bear on the power structure of the city.” Brazier observes pointedly that Jack didn’t look to gain power himself, but only to gain power for the people themselves.

“He has worked on people to (further their own concerns) rather than try to make a personal impact as a Catholic priest on the power structure. He has used his intelligence, his influence, his immense capabilities, to work with people so that they can find the power they need to have some effect on their own lives.

“You have to remember,” Brazier emphasizes, “that black people were practically powerless in the sixties.” As they began to understand some of the dynamics of power, the people of Woodlawn began to be less fearful of what the power structure could do to them. As they were speaking for the mass of the people, not for a local improvement association, their fear of reprisals began to diminish. It was daunting to agitate for change when it meant losing your job or your apartment or your welfare check. That couldn’t happen to a whole community. The federal poverty program accelerated that confidence because those monies were not dependent on local clout. However, because the poverty program was undermining local power, Brazier points out that forces friendly to local power soon started to emasculate the poverty program.

From Brazier’s point of view, the residents in The Woodlawn Organization needed what might be called front men, “people like Jack who had presence in the city, who had respect in the city.” Otherwise Woodlawn activists could be destroyed by rumormongers always willing to brand as Communist any persons willing to take up cudgels for the poor, the powerless. That happened to TWO. As soon as TWO began to achieve some success fighting the endemic problems of the ghetto, the members were attacked severely as Communists, as a hate group opposed to the expansion of the University of Chicago into Woodlawn. These were very serious tags in a country that had just come through the McCarthy era of the fifties. People reacted automatically, blindly, to any charge of Communism. Although Brazier insists that Monsignor Jack Egan never traded on his Roman collar, this was the moment when a Roman collar was an excellent cover.

“We were called a hate group because we were doing so many things that were out of the ordinary,” Brazier says, “because we were against `Negro removal,’ moving black people out of the area to be taken over by the university.” But with Monsignor Jack Egan out in front of the Woodlawn people, it would have taken Superglue to make the accusations stick.

As Brazier puts it, “It’s pretty hard to call a Catholic monsignor (with a ready grin, a record of perfect obedience, and an Irish moniker) a Communist, or a supporter of a hate group.”

Next Chapter . . .