The following article, concerning a key Memphis-related event in the life of the late Joseph Durick, bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee in the ‘60s and ‘70s, is excerpted from a longer article. The passage is about Durick’s involvement in events surrounding the fateful Memphis sanitation strike of 1968.)

Now and again one of my old comrades, a veteran of the civil rights wars, will recall saying to Joe Durick: “Hey, Bishop, when is the Church gonna make you a cardinal and send you off to Rome?”

“Not me,” the Bishop would say with that open, toothy smile of his, “No, for me it’s from Nashville straight to purgatory.”

Well, I don’t believe it turned out that way. I bet when the grim reaper did come in the middle of the night to the bedside of a sleeping Bishop Joseph A. Durick, the ticket in the old reaper’s hand read: “To Heaven, non-stop.”

The Durick story unfolds as an allegory, an instructive fable. This tale lends itself to the telling now because an important new book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Historian S. Jonathan Bass, opens up an important segment in Durick’s life and work. Here I will tell you about some other segments in that extraordinary life, segments hushed up until now.

Bass’ book makes us realize how the life of Roman Catholic Joe Durick and others became intertwined with that of Protestant Martin Luther King Jr. The result in Tennessee was profound. Durick became, as the Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee, the first head of a predominantly white, statewide organization to wage war against racism using religious and moral, as opposed to political, ammunition. Moving the conflict to the religious plain significantly changed, for all time, the nature of the battle.

The spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to hang in the air over everything that happened in those days, hang in the air like the lingering bars of a concerto. Indeed, it was events surrounding Dr. King’s death that led to my own association with Bishop Durick. I was the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s lead reporter covering the strike by the city’s garbage men. Scalding criticism had been heaped upon Durick when he had donated a thousand dollars from his discretionary funds to help feed the families of the strikers.

King had come to Memphis to support this strike when he was killed. In fact, the cab in which I was riding had just pulled out of the driveway of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, when James Earl Ray’s finger pulled the trigger of a high powered rifle and sent a bullet slamming into the throat of King, who had been standing on the motel balcony.

A short time later, with King lying on an emergency room gurney at St. Joseph Hospital a scant four blocks away, I took up residence in the office of Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. I would sleep on a couch there as the city came under martial law, and I would be there two days later when Durick, who had flown from Nashville, came in with a group of some 20 black and white ministers for a face-to-face confrontation with Mayor Loeb.

In the next few days, Durick led a memorial Mass for King and participated in a memorial march through the streets of Memphis. Durick and I came to know each other during these events and two months later he talked me into moving to Nashville to become the first lay editor in the 44-year history of the statewide diocesan newspaper, The Tennessee Register. Although not a priest, I was given a license to raise hell.

“You will have a free hand,” Durick told me, “Just make this newspaper an instrument for change, and for justice. Use it as a tool for Christian charity. And try not to get me in too much trouble.”

He only gave me one piece of journalistic advise: “You don’t have to be restricted to the ‘left end is a Catholic’ excuse. That means that the only way the editor of a Catholic publication can write about anything is to find a Catholic angle. An editor wants to write about a certain football team so he claims, ‘My reason for writing about it is that the left end is a Catholic.’”

Whatever tinges of regret the bishop may have had later about giving me such free rein, he never once in the ensuing years stopped me from printing, or rebuked me for printing, any material. And we ran some things that set Catholic--and perhaps a few non-Catholic--teeth on edge by the thousands.

Preparing for this story, I flipped back through some of the old, bound issues of the Tennessee Register. Here is a sampling of a few headlines:

“Latin American Bishops Urged: Reaffirm Violent Revolution”
_”Two Prominent Men Leave the Priesthood”
_”Church May Clear ‘Heretic’ Galileo”
_”Pope Receives Mrs. King, Bishop Honors Husband”
_”Bishop Marches To Honor Martin Luther King”
_”Pope Compares King’s Death, Christ’s Passion”
_”Priest Defends Black Panthers”

This is just a tiny sampling. The Register took up the lance of the social Gospel week upon week for years. And each week the goal was the same, inform the readers about developments in the Church, but also never, ever cease to drive that lance home and prod the conscience of Tennesseans to stand up for the oppressed and the victims of injustice.

We ran a story about the Pope reaffirming the long-held opposition to artificial birth control. But we ran along side it a story on 140 theologians saying that Catholics may follow their conscience on birth control matters. We ran a cartoon praising the Pope’s encyclical on birth control alongside another cartoon ridiculing the same encyclical.

To go along with a story questioning popular conceptions of Christ, we ran on the front page a quarter-page wanted poster for “Jesus of Nazareth: Vagrant. Loiters around synagogues, has ‘hippie’ appearance, often seen without shoes. Associates with common working people and the unemployed. . . Anarchist--subject is a professional agitator wanted for sedition and conspiring to overthrow the established government.”

The amazing thing is not that I got away with ruffling so many feathers. The amazing thing is that this bishop publisher allowed me to get away with it, sometimes even stuck his fingers in and ruffled a few feathers himself.

In June of 1969 we reported in the Register that a survey of 1,769 Tennessee Catholics showed that a plurality said the Church: (1) should feel obliged to take a stand on moral issues, (2) begin to dissolve the parochial school system, (3) allow priests to marry, and (4) give weighty consideration to modifying the ban on birth control. Only three percent of all polled felt that nothing controversial or sensational should be reported.

Well, if that three percent was accurate, it was a very loud three percent. In keeping with his new commitment to open dialogue, Bishop Durick, as publisher, had announced that the paper would begin printing letters. This allowed Durick’s critics to have a field day.

They wrote calling Durick and other liberal bishops “jackasses” and “buffoons” among other things. “We don’t have a bishop,” wrote one lady, “ we have a politician, a publicity seeker.” A few brave souls wrote letters of praise. We printed them all, praise and criticism alike.

There were, as well, some witty, supportive letters. When we printed an article by Father John McMurry defending those who decide to change their vocation, protesting letters flooded in, many of them touting a view of the Church as never changing. John Seigenthaler responded with his own letter, reading in part: “With so much to be done today and tomorrow it is sad to see so many looking for historical precedents to try to validate irrelevancy. . . It is quite true that God isn’t dead. But He must be embarrassed by so many well-meaning people who claim to speak for Him.”

The question of just who speaks for God was tested to the max in an ugly episode that came to be hearlded as “The Nashville bishop versus the Memphis Nun.”

Memphis was a hotbed_no, a cauldron_of anti-Durick sentiment. Nothing caused that cauldron to spill its molten anger more than Durick’s stance when a union went on strike in 1969 against St. Joseph Hospital, an institution in downtown Memphis run by Catholic nuns. Durick kept pointing out that Catholic social teaching upholds the right of workers to unionize. He took the position that Sister M. Rita, the administrator of the hospital, and the union_the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--must sit down and negotiate in good faith.

It’s the irony of ironies that the workers on strike at the hospital belonged to the same union that Dr. King was trying to help when he was killed, and that St. Joseph was the very hospital where doctors tried in vain to save his life. It’s also worth noting that the striking workers were virtually all poor blacks, while the board members that controlled the hospital were all rich whites.

During the strike, five ministers, including one priest, were arrested during a demonstration at the hospital on behalf of the union. One of those arrested was the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the 1969 Christmas holidays, I flew to Memphis with Durick to visit these ministers in jail.

When we encountered Abernathy in a large holding cell at the Shelby County Jail, he was shirtless. Due to the oppressive heat in the jail, little streams of perspiration ran down the black minister’s chest and back, dripped from his elbows. As we came in, Abernathy jumped up from the steel table on which he was sitting and he and Durick fell into a warm embrace. Both were stocky and barrel chested. They reminded me of two pro linemen congratulating each other after a football game.

“This is my bishop!” Baptist Abernathy yelled out as he squeezed Durick harder, “Yes, praise the Lord, my bishop. My bishop.”

“God bless you,” Durick said. “And Merry Christmas.”

When they finally parted, I could see that Durick’s coat had blotted Abernathy dry.

Eventually the strike was settled, but thousands of Memphians never forgave Durick for, as one put it, “turning his back on his own people, on his Church’s own hospital, and on the good nuns.” For his part, Durick privately was just as glad when Memphis_or “Big M,” as he referred to it--eventually became the seat of a separate diocese and he could wash his hands of Big M.

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