Cover Story: Missing Mac

The stubborn, gentle prophet could sure help now

Jon Hughes/

In his later years, the Rev. Maurice McCrackin depended on friends and church members such as Tim Kraus.

The images persist — the minister carrying a picket sign over his shoulder, standing at the gates to Coney Island, sitting in a federal courtroom, standing vigil outside the gates to the old Ohio Penitentiary, cops carrying him from his church in the West End, breaking a 21-day fast with one egg and cream of wheat while imprisoned, kneeling to pray on the White House lawn, scaling the White House fence, finally sitting in a wheelchair in front of the Federal Building, a watchman·s cap pulled low over his brow.

There he is, sitting in an easy chair in 1979, at the Community Church of Cincinnati. The Rev. Maurice McCrackin is reading letters from Ohio inmates.

He waits for the doorbell to ring.

Fast-forward to Dec. 8, 2002. A Sunday service at the Community Church — as austere today as it was in 1979 — and the Rev. Matthew Stephens, church pastor, is talking about the winds of war during this season of peace on Earth.

"The reality is that nobody wins in war," Stephens says. "Am I right?"

Two dozen or so church members are gathered in the tiny sanctuary of the church McCrackin founded 40 years ago.

As Stephens delivers his sermon on peace, sunlight pokes through the window above the front door at 932 Dayton St., barely lighting the narrow hallway and red carpet, much as it did that day almost a quarter-century ago when the law came to the church to get his predecessor, McCrackin.

In January 1979, McCrackin received a subpoena to testify against two escaped convicts who had taken him hostage in November 1978. He decided to ignore it. Now, on that chilly January day, two Hamilton County Sheriff·s deputies and three Cincinnati Police officers stood on the front steps of his church.

The doorbell rang.

McCrackin rose from an easy chair that day, Jan. 19, 1979, and peered through a curtain.

"They·re here,·· he said quietly, then slipped on an overcoat and opened the door.

"Now you have two ways to go — the nice way, the easy way, or we can carry you out,·· one of the deputies said as they walked into the foyer.

"I·m not cooperating,·· McCrackin answered, then went limp, the officers· arms breaking his fall. They carried him out, down the steps and past a handful of black youths who leaned in close and asked, "You all right, Rev. McCrackin?··

He spent the next 111 days in jail. He was 73 years old. It was the first in a series of arrests and imprisonments in acts of civil disobedience that continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

It has now been five years since the day McCrackin died at the age of 92 on Dec. 30, 1997. Yet, his spirit and memory are invoked now, on the eve of another possible war with Iraq. Some say a void has been left in the peace and justice community here since his death; some of the same people say his spirit still informs a growing anti-war movement.

Bonnie Neumeier, an Over-the-Rhine activist who was arrested downtown with McCrackin during the Gulf War in 1990, can see him in her mind·s eye even today, sitting in a wheelchair at age 97, in the middle of a protest rally in Washington Park, a warm blanket draped across his shoulders and covering his lap.

Kidnapped by the state
Taken before a Hamilton County grand jury in 1979, he refused to testify against two inmates who escaped from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, traveled to Cincinnati and took him hostage. McCrackin was found in contempt of court and taken to the Hamilton County Jail.

For the next 111 days he twice began 21-day fasts and twice was taken to the hospital for observation. On Easter Sunday 1979 he tried to flush his wristband down the jail cell toilet. He would not testify, would not accept the services of an attorney. Whenever he was summoned from his cell for a court appearance, he was moved to the courtroom in a wheelchair because he refused to walk.

He was more than willing to talk about his refusal to cooperate. McCrackin didn·t blame the two inmates — or any other inmate — for fleeing what he considered the degradation of Lucasville.

He never did testify. He was finally released May 10, 1979, 30 pounds lighter from his fasts. His pants hung loosely at his waist and he sported a full mane of white hair. The dogwood in his yard had bloomed, festooned in white flowers and ribbons placed there by church members. The county had taken 111 days of his life, and he had given them nothing in return.

To many people·s way of thinking, 1979 was a turning point, changing public perception of the West End minister. He was a pacifist, an unrelenting critic of the prison system, unalterably opposed to capital punishment, one who thought poverty and homelessness were crimes against humanity and believed strongly in integration and racial harmony. But since the 1940s, there were those who thought him a self-aggrandizing agitator, even a communist; he was thought a traitor at worst, and at best a grandstander.

That changed with the events of 1979. McCrackin was, after all, the victim of a crime. He didn·t ask to be kidnapped, only refused to acknowledge in legal terms that he had been. His refusal was decidedly not an act of willfulness. It was so unlike earlier acts of public protest, such as his refusal to pay income taxes, which landed him in a federal prison for six months in 1958. What happened in 1979 seemed to heighten McCrackin·s stature as a prisoner of conscience.

'You&'re not welcome'
Jan. 19, 1979 was the first time he·d been arrested and imprisoned in close to two decades. The last time was a civil rights struggle in Haywood County, Tenn., in 1960-61, when McCrackin was imprisoned for 41 days. That had followed six months at a federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., after being found in contempt of the Internal Revenue Service for refusing to pay federal income taxes. He was released from Allenwood in 1959.

The two-decade hiatus is something of a mystery. Partly, it had to do with the fact that by 1968, following a riot at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, McCrackin was becoming increasingly preoccupied with prison issues and began a voluminous correspondence with Ohio inmates. He was suspended from the Presbytery of Cincinnati in 1962 over his imprisonment for tax refusal, which stung even after he founded the Community Church.

Some who knew him well offer an additional explanation, which had to do with the separatist direction of the civil rights struggle by the mid- to late-1960s and the increasingly violent nature of Vietnam War protests. Both turns disappointed McCrackin. While he participated in anti-war protests, he apparently was never arrested.

"When the black power movement came into focus, he was very alienated by it," Tim Kraus recalls. "He focused his efforts on the Vietnam War and a tremendous amount of time to prison reform issues. He stayed away from some protests over Vietnam partly because of their violent nature. But he was distraught over the pronouncements of some, like Stokely Carmichael saying, 'You're not welcome.' The racial exclusion thing — Mac took high offense at that."

But the 1979 imprisonment seemed to rekindle a flame for civil disobedience. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s he was forever in and out of jail. Always following the same MO — non-cooperation, refusing to walk, refusing to enter a plea, refusing an attorney, fasting. He was arrested at various protests in Washington, D.C. He was arrested in Michigan at a plant that manufactured parts for Cruise missiles. After 10 days, Capt. Carl Mathny, who was in charge of the Oakland County, Mich., Jail in 1983, had had enough of the minister.

"I'm trying to get him released on a personal bond," Capt. Mathny said at the time. "I really don't like a 78-year-old man in my jail who's not eating. If I get a personal bond, we could just throw him out. Just set him outside the door."

More arrests followed. At the gates to the General Electric plant in Evendale, again in Washington and the entrance to the Fernald nuclear weapons materials plant in Crosby Township. In 1990 he was arrested when he and others conducted a sit-down protest on the floor of the Post Office Building downtown. He was arrested along with the late Ernest Bromley, another longtime Cincinnati social activist, when they climbed the fence surrounding the White House. Bromley was 79. McCrackin was 85. Their escapade gave rise to as much chuckling over White House security as it did over the serious issues and somber nature of the war.

McCrackin was less an organizer of protests in the last two decades of his life than a galvanizer, someone others found easy to rally around. His presence would be missing should the country go to war, say those who oppose war with Iraq.

"I think he left a tremendous void," says Berta Lambert, who was arrested with McCrackin several times. "Mac pointed the way. When Mac spoke, everyone listened."

Lorrie Swain, who now lives in Pike County — Chillicothe is the closest town — was arrested with McCrackin in 1990, sitting in at the Post Office Building downtown to protest the Gulf War.

"It was always an honor to link arms with old warriors," she says. "A lot of people just wear out. But Mac gave energy to a lot of people."

Neumeier, arrested that day with Swain, agrees. Those who joined arms with activists like McCrackin felt comforted by his presence.

"When you make that decision (to engage in civil disobedience) and you're there with someone of that experience, any fear you might have had goes right away," Neumeier says. "You knew you were doing the right thing. There was a camaraderie. You felt good about putting your body on the line. When you do it with a group of people who have done it before, it makes it easier. I felt safe and secure having Mac by my side."

Now, she continues, there is a void.

"There's no way to replace that," Neumeier says. "But those that are left behind have to keep that alive. His legacy is that strength that still imbues the peace and justice movement."

Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Over-the-Rhine, says Rev. McCrackin's death left a void in peoples' hearts, as much as it did in the leadership of the peace and justice community.

"He's the kind of person who gave you the inner strength you needed," Gerdeman says. "To have a wisdom figure, somebody that·s always there and ready, who can be used as an example, is invaluable. He was an inspiration."

Just a bus driver
A former governor of Ohio would visit him in later years and read to him as his eyesight began failing. Bill Mundon of the Community Church was a constant visitor, looking after the minister. Brian Garry, who is 37 and had known Rev. McCrackin since Garry was 18, would look after him as well, as did others, including the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr.

"He would call and say, 'Can you come get me?' and I'd go and take him wherever he needed to go," Lynch says. "As I get older, I appreciate him more. People like Mac are rare and only come along once every 50 or maybe even 100 years."

City and county officials, with just a few exceptions, came to respect him, even when they disagreed. His reputation in the peace and justice community in the country was immense. He was an ascetic man of simple tastes and little means.

Bill Mundon, a Community Church officer who was executor of McCrackin"s estate, which was mostly made up of life insurance proceeds, says the minister left about $4,000 to the church. He never had much, and what little that came his way he gave away.

"He didn't let money accumulate," Mundon says. "He didn't want a lot of money. When we would try to give him a raise (as pastor), he'd say, "I don't need it. I've got all I need."He'd give small donations to organizations that were in the business of helping poor people."

He came to public demonstrations late in life — he was 43 when he took up a sign to protest segregation at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1948. There was hardly anyone active in community affairs here who did not know him or of him. Anyone who met him for the first time was struck by the contrast between his soft-spoken gentleness and the fierce tenacity of his beliefs.

He was an unassuming man, almost as non-judgmental about people as he was judgmental about institutions.

"He actually loved his enemies, those who didn't like him," says Mary Ann Lederer, a local artist who became close to McCrackin and made close to 200 protest signs during the Gulf War.

She first met McCrackin when she was just 16 and a camp counselor at the Findlay Street Neighborhood House, which the minister founded.

"I thought he was just the bus driver," Lederer says. "I didn't know who he was. He drove the bus for the camp. He did whatever needed to be done. A year or so later a friend said to me, 'Did you see McCrackin in the paper' It was 1958 or '59. He had been arrested because he wouldn't pay his taxes. I said, 'You mean the bus driver?' "

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken declared Nov. 12, 1987 Maurice McCrackin Day in the city. Former State Rep. William L. Mallory saw to it that the General Assembly honor McCrackin in 1989 for "outstanding social concern." An annual award, the McCrackin Peace and Justice Award, was established in his name in the mid-1990s honoring individuals who work for social justice. Three weeks before he died Xavier University honored him with one of the school' s most prestigious awards, the St. Francis Xavier Medal. A unanimous resolution by Cincinnati City Council honoring the minister followed. Then he died.

Yet for all the high-profile people he knew and awards in his later years, he spent practically his entire life in Cincinnati living among the dispossessed of the largely African-American community in the West End. His friends among the poor and sick and imprisoned, as well as members of Community Church, far outnumbered those in high places and were probably far more precious to him.

Gerdeman recalls his birthday party in 1985, when Rev. McCrackin turned 80.

"There were people there from the higher echelons of society, and there were street people there as well," she says. "They were all taking cookies off the same plate. They all got a hug from Mac. It was one of those universal moments."

When John Gilligan was governor of Ohio, McCrackin had already begun criticizing the state prison system. Kraus says the minister would travel to Columbus to protest prison conditions and was undoubtedly an irritant.

"He was a pain in the butt for Gilligan," Kraus says.

Yet Gilligan was never thin-skinned about the criticism. Indeed, he says today, McCrackin was right.

"He was quite right," Gilligan says. "He was critical of the system and quite properly so."

So it was not much of a leap for the former governor to befriend McCrackin years later. Kraus found the relationship "touching."

"It was testament to the kind of impression Reverend McCrackin made on people who had come to know him," he says.

"I used to come and see him, talk to him and read to him, articles and stuff," Gilligan recalls. "I brought him a radio or a small TV. When his eyesight got to the point where he couldn't read anymore, I'd read to him things I thought he'd be interested in hearing. I'd spend an hour or so with him. He was quite a guy.

"If you lived in this town very long, you couldn't avoid being aware of his presence. He was a man of peace. He would quite literally put his body on the line. He was absolutely incapable of an act of violence against anybody."

Gordon Maham, a fellow activist who is 86 years old, recalls McCrackin in these terms.

"People talk about his successes," Maham says. "I talk about his failures — failure to walk when he was arrested, failure to report to court when summoned, the failure of the White House fence to keep him out."

McCrackin's jailers were the ones who had to deal with those "failures" when he was arrested. In later years, they would rather not deal with him. Like Capt. Mathny, and the jailer who had to deal with a storm of national protest when it was revealed in 1985 that he had used a stun gun on McCrackin's legs when he refused to walk. Other jailers grew close. Hamilton County Sheriff Lincoln Stokes and Victor Carelli, his chief deputy, actually became friends with the minister when he was in their jail in 1979. Yet, when Rev. McCrackin was finally released on May 10, 1979, a jail official said, "We're pleased not to have him here, no question about it."

It was a statement of relief, not solidarity.

Those who knew him in a lesser political context point out he kept up an endless correspondence with people across the country, including hundreds of inmates in Ohio prisons, and visited the sick and infirm in hospitals, catching a bus once his eyesight began failing and he could no longer drive. He visited shut-ins and pled the case for those in trouble. As taken as he was with social justice issues, charity began at home and with those who worshipped with him. He never neglected his flock, Tim Kraus maintains.

"Parallel to all of these other concerns, Mac had this fidelity to his congregation," says Kraus, a Community Church member and friend. "He was man who was out in this world but he had this congregation and he ministered to them. He was always present — for every operation, for every crisis each of the families went through. When a family went to the hospital for an operation, he would be there waiting. He never missed those obligations. Then he·d go picket somewhere."

Bill Mundon says the congregation never resented it when McCrackin was away from the church.

"We knew that was a part of his life," Mundon says. "But we felt lonely without him. We supported him in what he was doing outside of the church, but it was a terrible absence when he wasn't there. People just loved being around him."

When in jail, Mundon says, the minister often sent off a jail cell letter. He or another church member would read it at Sunday services.

"In that way, he was sort of there with us," Mundon says.

Even after he retired as pastor of Community Church in the late 1980s, McCrackin still regularly attended Sunday services at the tiny church. Today, five years after his death, his memory endures.

"He's still a major force and presence in the congregation," Kraus says. "His spirit still permeates the congregation."

Keeping the bride waiting
It was evident at a Sunday service last month. Kraus brought up news of the death of Philip Berrigan, former priest, anti-war activist and, he pointed out, a good friend of McCrackin's. Berrigan had died Dec. 6 at age 79.

I had last been in the church in the late 1980s, when McCrackin retired as pastor. It hadn't changed much since 1979, when I had sat with him and waited for the law to show up and cart him away or since August 1981, when McCrackin married my wife and me. The same metal folding chairs, a simple altar and candles, a cross hanging behind the pulpit. On a far wall hung a photographic portrait of Gandhi. It's still there.

One month before the wedding, McCrackin was arrested in Washington, D.C. I called my mother, a woman of traditional and very conventional values who lived in New York, telling her we might have a problem with the minister who was to marry us.

"He's in jail," I told her.

She was incredulous.

"What do you mean he's in jail!" she asked. "In jail?! What in the world is he doing in jail?"

I remember calling the U.S. attorney in Washington, who told me this old guy had been arrested for trespassing, for walking onto the White House grounds with a tour group, then kneeling and praying on the White House lawn, protesting events in El Salvador and increased military spending under the Reagan administration, refusing to leave. He was 75 years old, refused to cooperate in his arrest and refused to give his name.

"Who is this guy?" U.S. attorney Paul Knight had asked me.

Realizing it a no-win situation, the government dropped the trespassing charge two days later. McCrackin took a train back to Cincinnati, just two weeks before he married us.

The assassin's cousin
Two days before he was arrested in 1979, McCrackin and I drove to Lucasville, where he was to visit a handful of inmates. He awoke early and packed a picnic basket for the drive to Lucasville, about 125 miles east of Cincinnati. Along the way he stopped at a grocery store and bought fresh fruit for the inmates. At the state prison, his basket and fruit were inspected; his shoes were checked. He finally walked through a series of sliding cell doors to a visitor·s room. He made the visit to Lucasville at least four times a year.

"I've never met anyone quite like him," Kelly Chapman, serving time for aggravated robbery, told me that day. "The old man is just solid good. The first time I ever saw him was after the riots at the Ohio Pen in 1968. I looked out the window and saw this old man walking up and down in front of the prison with a sign on his back."

Said another inmate that day: "Mac has a dream — he thinks he can abolish prisons."

When he was arrested two days later, he handed me a written statement.

"How can I go and testify against a prisoner on behalf of the state, when it is the state of Ohio that is responsible for the vast injustice, degradation and horror that is Lucasville?" McCrackin had written. "Appearing (before the grand jury) would be a moral compromise that I am not prepared to make."

Mention McCrackin at the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, and the librarians will know who and what you're talking about. That's where the McCrackin Collection is stored and catalogued.

"It·s overwhelming," says a librarian.

The collection includes 74 boxes of papers and six oversized folders, about 30 cubic feet of material. Included are his journals from Persia (Iran) from the 1930s, copies of sermons he'd delivered over the years, a ton of correspondence from family, friends, foes, activists, church officials and hundreds of Ohio inmates. There are boxes of official proceedings with the Presbytery of Cincinnati, letters from Allenwood, tax statements, arrest warrants, attorneys' records, trial transcripts, press releases, magazine and newspaper clippings, Cincinnati income tax statements.

Even cancelled checks — among hundreds of checks, $10 here to the Urban League, $10 there to the Fellowship House. He even kept receipts of car repairs. Maintenance on his 1948 Chevrolet cost him $12.86 in 1952. By 1955 his checking account had a balance of $5.56, and by the end of 1957 he owed $979.61 in back taxes to the federal government.

Letters from Ohio inmates, which begin in 1961, often start out calling him "Rev. McCrackin," soon develop into "Maurice" and finally become the more familial "Mac." By then, many of these inmates would sign their letters, "With love."

There are scraps of paper with scribbled notes in his handwriting, almost indecipherable. There's a whole folder stuffed with birthday cards from his 80th birthday in 1985. The oversized folders overflow with placards, protest signs and banners.

His life was not without irony and anomalies.

He refused a penny to the federal government because of its war-making, yet was a soft touch among those who asked him for money. A handful of people took advantage of him; one homeless family ripped off some of his possessions when he took them in at his home at 932 Dayton St. He befriended Kentucky inmate Cullen Ray, a cousin of James Earl Ray, who assassinated one of McCrackin's heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he never cooperated with authorities when he was arrested, he made an exception once. A corrections officer in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s asked McCrackin if he wouldn't mind walking back to his cell.

"I'll pray for you this Sunday," the officer said.

McCrackin rose to his feet and voluntarily walked, rather than be carried back to his cell.

Well into his 70s, this minister of non-violence was banned from visiting Ohio inmates or sending them packages or money orders.

"We deem him to be a real security threat," said a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections in 1979, much to the astonishment of anyone who knew McCrackin.

As much as his public persona was one of passionate views, he rarely complained about what troubled him personally. Brian Garry, for instance, says he can recall only one time when McCrackin expressed irritation about something.

"I wouldn't even call it anger," Garry says.

Yet he nonetheless suffered severe depression at times, especially in later life, when he was plagued with constant pain. A knee replacement and back surgery had caused constant torment. A battle with prostate cancer brought him face-to-face with his mortality.

"He did go through depression in his last 10 years of his life,&" Kraus says. "He was battling severe depression. He was in 'round-the-clock pain. The constant 24-hour pain just wore on him. It sapped his energy and helped feed his depression. Obviously, he battled that by trying to be more active. But it was difficult. When he climbed the White House fence in 1990, he did that in severe pain. He tried anti-depressants but that didn·t work very well. He was fighting pain 24 hours a day."

He also wondered in his last years whether he had made a difference. He was delighted when told a new generation of social activists were emboldened by his example and what they knew of him.

"The last time I saw him, he was having one of those blue moments, when I think you know the end of your life is coming," Sr. Gerdeman recalls. "He felt there was so much yet to do. I said to him, "Do you know how many good young people are out there?" His face just lighted up."

Brian Garry has been one of them, having met McCrackin when he was 18 years old. Now 37, he organizes Mac Day each June in Laurel Park in the West End, a celebration of the minister's life. He participated in the protest at the Museum Center during President Bush's appearance Oct 7.

Garry says McCrackin was prepared to fast to the death over the destruction of the Milner Hotel in the mid-1990s, a hotel that served the homeless and mentally ill. McCrackin, older now and more feeble, tried to scale the demolition fence. But police intercepted him.

"They were going to bring in a pickup truck and throw a ladder out for Mac to climb over," Garry recalls. "The cops closed in and got Mac before he got over. He began his fast."

About a year before McCrackin died, the Milner Hotel in downtown Cincinnati came down and was replaced by upscale housing. City officials assured McCrackin they would make every attempt to replace the 115 housing units lost by the demolition, according to Garry. He broke his fast. But it didn't happen. The minister's last crusade was something of a failure.

"The whole peace movement is built around Mac," Garry says. "The resistance is growing. There are still people doing stuff now. I remain hopeful. Yes, there's something of a void. If you're not getting arrested, you're not setting the example. What Mac did is missing. No one really is getting arrested. They're not confronting the system the way Mac did. Mac was never part of the system. It has to be outside the system."

'I don't know what he is'
McCrackin spent his last two years in a nursing center in Clifton. His visitors were numerous, among them former Gov. Gilligan.

"In the early days people were always yelling about him being a communist," Gilligan says. "I would say, "I don't know what he is. But I'll tell you, if Jesus Christ came back to Earth, I think he would be living where Mac was living and would look and sound and act an awful lot like Mac." I really believe that to be true. And He'd scandalize the hell out of everybody. And then they'd go crucify Him again."

McCrackin had a number of visitors just the day before he died, according to Kraus.

"People who saw him said he was in wonderful spirits," he says. "He was totally alert, cogent and there was nothing that would have betrayed this happening."

The night before he died, McCrackin made a flurry of phone calls. Lorrie Swain received one of them.

"That night he had left a message on my phone," she says. "He used to always say, "Sleep with the angels." That night he said, ·I just called up to say hello and to sleep with the angels. I love you."

Kraus got a call as well that night.

"He had made I don't know how many phone calls that night," Kraus says. "At least a dozen. He left a message on my answering machine, ";Just saying that I love you." He called a whole bunch of people.

"Then he just went to bed and died."