Rev. Calvin Morris Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement

Rev. Calvin S. Morris, Community Renewal Society

Rev. Calvin S. Morris, Ph.D. serves as Executive Director of the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based social justice advocacy organization in Chicago focusing on race and poverty. A civil rights and human rights activist, he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., serving as Associate Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation BreadBasket (now Operation PUSH) in Chicago from 1967-71. He was Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, from 1973-76. He was also a university professor and theological dean from 1976-1998. Morris is frequently invited to preach, speak and lecture.


When I came to Chicago in 1967, ostensibly to work on a PhD at the University of Chicago, where I had been admitted hoping to study under the famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin, those intentions were derailed by my college friend, Jesse Louis Jackson, and his challenge to me that it was time to make more concrete my commitment to the Civil Rights Movement of that day. It was an offer I could not refuse, and sometime thereafter I met Rabbi Robert Marx, founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

A 1968 Operation BreadBasket rally in Illinois (photo from LIFE.com)

Accepting Jesse’s invitation, I moved to join the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation BreadBasket in Chicago. Dr. King was the leader of SCLC and we all served at his pleasure. Rabbi Marx, Rev. Clay Evans, the late Al Raby and Rev. Arthur Griffin, along with the Rev. Donald Benedict, Executive Director of Community Renewal Society, were individuals among many who had invited Dr. King to Chicago the year before.

Following Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the movie producer Eli Landau went about making a documentary about Dr. King’s life and work, entitled From Montgomery to Memphis. The film’s initial showing was to be in Chicago, and Rev. Jackson assigned me the responsibility of coordinating an interfaith effort in the city and surrounding suburbs to assure that the theater would be packed.

One of the leaders I approached was Rabbi Robert Marx, who immediately responded, bringing to the project his vast array of contacts in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of the Chicago metropolitan area, offering me advice and counsel, and always being on call when I had questions and concerns.

I came to admire Rabbi Marx and have continued that regard until this present day. He is an exemplar of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, and his commitment and passion for justice is as unwavering today as it was more than forty years ago.

Rev. Morris, Rabbi Robert Marx and Jane Ramsey at a Cabrini-Green prayer vigil

During those years of struggle, in Chicago particularly and in the American South generally, African-Americans had no firmer friends and supporters than members of the American Jewish community, and certainly within the Chicagoland community, we stood together against anti-Semitism and racism from then until now.

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