Healing the Racial Divide, Interview with Lincoln Rice

Karen Johnson
Recently, I caught up with Lincoln Rice to talk about his new book Healing the Racial Divide: A Catholic Racial Justice Framework Inspired by Dr. Arthur Falls.  The book uses the life of the black Catholic medical doctor Arthur Falls (1901-2000) to think through contemporary theories of racial justice.  

KJ: You've based your book on the life and writings of a relatively unknown layperson.  Why does Arthur Falls matter?
LR: Healing the Racial Divide had a large historical emphasis not only to suitably address the problem of white supremacy, but also as an exercise in historical retrieval. The stories and theologies of the oppressed are often not properly respected or preserved. I retrieved the life and thought of Dr. Arthur Falls, a black Catholic physician, because he is one of the under-appreciated and forgotten voices. In addition to playing a leading role with the Chicago Urban League during the 1930s, he founded the first Catholic Worker in Chicago in 1936, played a mentoring role for the Congress of Racial Equality at its inception in 1942, and was one of ten black physicians who filed a suit against Chicago hospitals in 1961 that was successful in integrating Chicago’s hospital system. Falls was a monumental figure in American race relations during the twentieth century.

KJ: What can we learn from Arthur Falls about what it takes to pursue racial justice?  

LR: Falls’s incorporation of the social sciences led him to believe that the pursuit of racial justice required an organized interracial struggle. More specifically, effective action for justice requires carefully planned actions. Education, or moral suasion, has a role to play, but it needs to be augmented with militant action. Other than his involvement with the Catholic Church, which laid his foundation racial justice, every group with which he was involved possessed a limited purpose. Falls was involved with the Catholic Worker, the Chicago Urban League, the Federated Colored Catholic, the Congress of Racial Equality, and many more. Some groups he founded; others he formed. He was only as involved with a group for as long as he thought it was worthwhile. The goal was paramount. The group is expendable. Lastly, to inspire groups to continue in their justice work despite setbacks, he would tell them, “If you are right, you don’t always lose.” 

KJ: You critique many white Catholics (including the Jesuit John LaFarge, who was the grandfather of the Catholic interracial movement, and many American bishops) for not accounting for and listening to black voices.  Why?

LR: Regarding the first half of the twentieth century, the white Jesuit priest, John LaFarge, is the most remembered Catholic voice against racism. Although Fr. LaFarge laid down a theological framework for racial justice, he did not listen to African American voices and even silenced important black Catholic voices. On the other hand, Falls was passionate, prophetic, effective, built interracial coalitions, and empowered black Catholics to blaze their own trail. It is my hope that at some point in the future, people like Falls will be remembered as the great Catholic figures for racial justice in the twentieth century and people like LaFarge will be delegated to the back pews of history. 

KJ: You are moral theologian, and your work is driven by a desire to see racial justice fulfilled in the United States.  A substantial portion of your book, though, is history.  What role do you see history playing in shaping contemporary thought on racial justice? 

LR: In Catholic moral theology, there are three criteria by which the morality of an act is judged: the act itself, the intent of the agent, and the circumstances surrounding the act. Particularly when addressing a moral evil like a racism, which has gripped American society for centuries, being aware of the circumstances surrounding the act plays a key role in not only properly naming the evil, but also in effectively addressing the evil.

KJ:  You discovered a new source – the memoir manuscript Falls wrote in 1962 – could you tell us about how you found it?
LR: In 1962, Falls wrote an eight hundred page rough draft memoir. It appears that he went through it once to correct any glairing errors, but he never finished editing it. Through a published interview that he gave in the 1990s, he mentioned that he moved to Michigan to be near his niece. I was also aware from Francis Sicius’s 1979 dissertation on the Chicago Catholic Worker movement, for which he interviewed Falls, that Falls had collected his own personal papers. After having both of these pieces of information, I utilized whitepages.com, found his niece’s phone number, and called her. She shared with me the existence of Falls’s memoir. We both agreed on its importance and I mediated the donation of the memoir to Marquette University’s Archives in Milwaukee, WI.

KJ: What has your project's reception been like?

LR: Overall, I have been very pleased with the reception of the book. This past May I gave a talk on Falls at the Harold Washington Chicago Public Library. As a Catholic moral theologian, I normally give talks to Catholic groups. This was the most diverse group to which I have presented. In addition to regular Catholics, there were history scholars in attendance as well as black and white individuals with a keen interest in Chicago race relations.

Additionally, I am finishing up a summer class on Catholic racial justice at Marquette University where I assigned the students the book to read and discuss. They have mentioned that the example of Falls is not only inspiring, but practical. Unlike a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X, whose actions can seem larger than life, Falls’s focused actions, often on a small scale, provide dozens of practical examples.


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