For a man with such controversial political views, Rev. Maurice McCrackin was remarkably gentle.
"What brought me to him was his kindness," says Brian Garry, a social activist and friend of McCrackin. "When a person is on that sort of level, you can't help but be drawn to them."
As McCrackin got older and his eyesight started to fail, Garry would read McCrackin's mail to him. He received hundreds of letters from near and far from people who admired him, Garry says.
"Each of these individuals felt like he was their best friend," he says.
Garry helps organize Mac Day, a commemoration of McCrackin's life and a celebration of his principles. This year Mac Day will be the ending point for the March for Justice, a peaceful protest against what organizers say is racism and violence by Cincinnati Police. If McCrackin were alive, he would be at the head of the march, according to Rev. Harold Porter, who conducted his funeral service in 1997.
"He was Mr. Justice Issue for the city," Porter says.
"He was the conscience for the city, really."
When McCrackin died at age 92, more than 800 people attended, twice the capacity of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church.
"All across social lines, he became a symbol of goodness, civility and fairness," Porter wrote of McCrackin. "His life clearly demonstrated what he believed: God loved all. Justice is for all. Compassion is for all. It was as simple as that."
But that is not to say his mission was easy. McCrackin protested every form of injustice he encountered. Described as an eccentric dreamer by some and Christ-like by others, he was arrested more than 20 times for acts of civil disobedience and protest.
The Presbyterian Church suspended McCrackin in 1963 after he refused to pay federal taxes, fearing the money would be used to support war. Undeterred, McCrackin continued his ministry by becoming pastor of Community Church of Cincinnati. Twenty-five years later, in 1987, the Presbyterian Church restored his ministry.
McCrackin was a pacifist who never gave up his non-violent stance, according to Garry.
"He would always put his body on the line and get arrested," Garry says. "He was worthy of imitation. All of his political stances were beautiful and perfect. But aside from that, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world."
McCrackin's social activism took off when he was in his 40s, shortly after returning from missionary work in Iran.
"The first picket sign he picked up was to help desegregate the College-Conservatory of Music," Garry says.
He didn't stop there. He worked to desegregate Coney Island. He helped form Justice Watch, an advocacy organization for the rights of prisoners, and Camp Joy, a summer camp for inner city youth.
During the Gulf War, at age 85, McCrackin was arrested and jailed for climbing over the White House fence in protest.
McCrackin applied nonviolence even when he was a victim of crime, according to his friend and attorney Robert Newman. Once McCrackin was jailed for four months because he refused to testify before a grand jury against a man who had stolen his car. The man had only recently been released from prison, and McCrackin feared his testimony would land the man back in jail.
In jail, McCrackin went on a hunger strike in which he lost about 50 pounds, Newman says. In the end, the testimony of a Catholic theologian and an English professor about civil disobedience convinced a judge to free McCrackin.
"He was always involved with prison issues," Newman says. "He was the sweetest, kindest fellow I have ever known." ©