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April 16, 2017

A look back: Catholic response to the riots of April 1968

By Joyce Duriga

Editor

Cardinal John Cody looks over bags of food given by people of all faiths for riot victims on the West Side. The photo was taken in the basement of Washington Boulevard Methodist Church in Oak Park on April 5, 1968. (Chicago Catholic archive photo)

April 4 was the 49th anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With a view toward the New World/Chicago Catholic’s 125th anniversary this September, we went into the archives to see how the paper covered his assassination.

While doing that, I came across the newspaper’s coverage of the riots on city’s West, South and Near North Sides that started when King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Some may remember that fires raged and looting was rampant over that weekend. The Army and the National Guard were called in.

Immediately Catholics responded with aid.

The night of Friday, April 5, Cardinal John Cody mobilized the priests at St. Catherine Parish in Oak Park, located across from the city’s Austin neighborhood where rioting was going on. He offered the parish as a home base for aid efforts organized by the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race. The parish became the place to take care of riot “refugees” and the nearby Methodist church was the base for donations.

Soon after the call went out for help, donations poured in from people around the city. So did offers of shelter for families whose homes burned in the fires.

Across town, at 21 W. Superior, the Catholic Interracial Council also served as a hub for donations for riot victims.

“The greatest demand has been for food because stores in the riot areas were shut down and supplies were unavailable,” John McDermott, executive director of the CIC told the New World.

In an editorial in the April 12, 1968, issue, J.M. Kelly wrote of the tremendous outpouring of help that came from various religions and races in response to the riots.

“We should all pray very hard that this spirit of genuine brotherhood will be a growing and lasting thing, that hearts opened during the crisis will not be closed when peace returns,” the editorial said. “Only then can we be sure that Dr. King did not die in vain.”