The Rev. Richard Morrisroe walks into a press conference in Oak Park Hospital, February 16, 1966. (Photo: Dykinga, Chicago Sun-Times)
Students have probably seen Richard Morrisroe walking quietly through the halls of Calumet College of St. Joseph (CCSJ), sometimes aided by a cane. As an adjunct faculty member in Religious Studies since 1981, he’s regularly taught courses in Business Ethics, Social Justice, and scripture studies, among others. Few students may be aware, however, of his life-altering experiences during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Today, Morrisroe lives in East Chicago with his wife Sylvia. He has two adult children. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Mary of the Lake University, a Master’s degree in urban studies from Loyola University, a law degree from Northwestern University. He also earned a Doctorate of Ministry degree from Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park.
A defining moment in Morrisroe’s life came in the summer of 1960 when he took a summer construction job working on the Henry Horner Homes public housing project on Chicago’s near West Side.
“The construction workplace drew me out of my all white world,” Morrisroe explained.
On the job, he quickly noted that most of the tradespeople were white, but the helpers were black. At the same time, he saw that the African-American workers possessed skills equal to or better than the white tradespeople, but were often relegated to completing menial tasks.
As a seminary student, Morrisroe “heard prominent clerical and lay national figures in the forefront of civil rights,” according to Professor Walter Skiba who includes Morrisroe in the history of the university. At a 1963 National Conference on Religion and Race, he heard Chicago Archbishop Albert Meyer, who had become a forceful spokesman on racial equality, say in his keynote address, ‘Our whole future as a nation and as a religious people may be determined by what we do about the race problem in the next few years.'”
Soon after, Morrisroe took a summer internship with Fr. Daniel Mallette, pastor of a predominantly black parish on Chicago’s West Side, who organized and participated in demonstrations and joined the 1963 March on Washington.
Ordained in April 1964, Morrisroe requested to serve in a black parish. He was assigned to St. Columbanus, located in the Park Manor-Chatham South Side neighborhood. At that time, that neighborhood was a “middle class world of factory and office workers, teachers and social workers, police and fire, courts and food service with a sprinkling of medical and legal professionals,” writes Morrisroe. Fifteen years earlier, it had been the scene of rioting by angry whites opposed to African Americans who were beginning to move to the community.
In between visiting families, baptizing children, officiating weddings, and other tasks, Morrisroe spent his free time serving in and learning more about Chicago’s African American community. He became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
When Martin Luther King Jr. started his marches, Morrisroe quickly joined in his non-violent demonstrations. He participated in some ten different marches in Chicago that supported Dr. King’s vision of world at peace and free from racial and economic injustice. It was dangerous to join the movement, especially to travel to the South for it, but Morrisroe felt no fear.
In a 1966 article, Morrisroe explained that he went to the South “not to change the South,” but rather to better understand the “rural roots” of African Americans living in Chicago. He wanted a “deeper understanding of Negro people in America” and to learn more about the challenges they faced concerning voting, education, employment and housing.
Dr. King had put out a call to clergy to join him on his Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. Morrisroe traveled to the South in 1965 where he would participate in another march, just outside Selma, Alabama.
Morrisroe’s eventual place in history of the American Civil Rights Movement can be traced, in part, back to his neighbors The Rayners. It was through the Rayner family that Morrisroe would eventually meet Jonathan Daniels, who would go on to have a great impact on his life.
Sammy Rayner was a parishioner at St. Columbanus, a local funeral director, and World War II Tuskegee airman. He invited Morrisroe to spend part of his two-week vacation with him, his two sons, and a few Chicago State University students in Alabama. Morrisroe agreed, and they attended Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. The roots of the SCLC can be traced back to the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.
Morrisroe attended the meeting. There he met Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Carmichael introduced Morrisroe to Jonathon Daniels. He thought the two had a lot in common, which they did. Like Morrisroe, Daniels had an interest in ministry. He was from New England and was in the third year of seminary in Cambridge. He, too, was 26 years old.
Daniels showed Morrisroe around Lowndes County. On Saturday, August 14, 1965, the pair drove to Fort Deposit. They took part in a protest against demeaning treatment of black customers by certain businesses. Within minutes, the group of activists were arrested for disturbing the peace and demonstrating without a permit. They were transported 20 miles to the prison in the county seat of Hayneville on a flatbed truck used to haul garbage.
After six days in jail, they were released on their own recognizance and forced outside and away from the grounds at gunpoint. Those with prior experience in the South expressed their fright about being released so suddenly, and not having the opportunity to arrange a ride.
Morrisroe, Johnathan Daniels, Ruby Sales, and Joyce Bailey went to Varner’s Cash Store, which was open to both blacks and whites, to purchase cold drinks and snacks. Once they arrived, Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Coleman stood in the doorway with his twelve-gauge shotgun.
As Ruby Sales recounts, she approached the store and was confronted by Coleman, “Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out.”
Before any of them could react, Coleman shot Daniels in the stomach.
Sales “felt a tug.” Daniels had pulled her out of the way, and had taken the full force of the 12-gauge shotgun. He was killed instantly.
The second barrel hit Morrisroe in the back and he was left for dead in the street. Without being aware of it at the time, a black nurse and white doctor from a nearby office came to his aid. They stopped the bleeding and carted him to the hospital. As the cart passed rows of pine trees, Morrisroe was fully aware that Daniels, who he’d been placed on top of, was dead.
Once they arrived at Montgomery Baptist Hospital, Morrisroe endured eleven hours of surgery. The shotgun had damaged his stomach, spleen, lung, and spine. It took him five months to relearn to walk.
It took a lot of grit to get through the program, but Morrisroe had the determination to walk again. Every day the young man used a Hubbard tank to loosen his limbs and get some mobility back. Eventually, he could maneuver with a walker before eventually switching to a cane. After a year, he no longer needed the cane; but was left with a permanent limp.
Besides having to deal with overcoming the physical pain, Morrisroe also fought mental wounds. After the shooting, there was a period where he experienced some post-traumatic stress. Two years after, he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, which placed him on psychotropic medicine for four years.
Morrisroe maintained his connection with Jonathan Daniels decades after that day in Alabama. If the shooting had never happened, he believes that their connection would be non-existent. History and Tom Coleman made Daniels significant for him. Without them, he believes, Daniels might have become simply another person he met on a vacation.
Despite the unfortunate situation, he didn’t hate Sheriff Coleman. Morrisroe believes that his seminary training and emphasis on loving others rather than hating them influenced how he embraced the situation. Coleman and Morrisroe never crossed paths again after the shooting, which also helped his reaction. He’s revisited the area around ten times since the incident, the thought of visiting Coleman never crossed his mind.
In 1966, Morrisroe was given the 1965 John F. Kennedy Award. He was the next to receive the award after Dr. King had been awarded it in 1964. Morrisroe explains that, at that time, he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the award. However, as time went on, the award started to mean more to him. He now understands its significance and feels honored to have received it.
Morrisroe eventually began to work in the Hispanic community. After his experience with the Civil Rights Movement, Morrisroe was told that he’d become “too political” to return to working in the black community.
After he had recovered, Morrisroe resigned from the priesthood to marry his wife, Sylvia. He learned Spanish and moved to East Chicago, Indiana. The area was around ninety percent African-American and Hispanic. Morrisroe believes that one of the riches in his life was getting to know the black and Hispanic communities better than many white people do.
In a letter from 2011, he writes, “My own interest in the Civil Rights Movement came through listening to my elders, my examples of faith and commitment, and then carrying out my witness to the tunes and tone colors which inspired me.”
Richard Morrisroe’s experiences have shaped how he sees the world today. He appreciates small moments and takes nothing for granted.
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