Gene Liner is proud to be a Knight of Columbus. But there was
a time he could take little pride in his beloved fraternal organization.
My council has always been a downtown council. But around the
country there werent many blacks in the Knights of Columbus when
I took office, said Liner.
The issue kept coming up, Liner said, especially here in Chicago.
Due to the Knights historically discriminatory practices, the
Knights of Peter Claver formed in Mobile, Ala., in 1909. That
group has been home for the majority of black Catholics in the
Like the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver dont
hold racial requirements to join. One need only be a practicing
Roman Catholic. Clavers count Cardinal George as one of their
But Liner understood the racial divisions of both groups. Still,
nearly 40 years ago, he sponsored a Knights of Columbus candidate
named Joseph Bertrand.
Bertrand was no ordinary candidate, said his son Jason. Bertrand
grew up in Corpus Christi Parish and attended the University of
Notre Dame where he became an All-American in basketball, graduating
in 1954. Today, Jason is a Chicago Archdiocesan administrative
consultant for Vicariates III and IV.
Returning home, the elder Bertrand was searching for a Catholic
fraternal organization. He found the Knights of Columbus. But
the Knights werent ready for him.
I took his application, said Liner. We were a Catholic organization;
we had no other choice. The older [Knights] didn't like that.
The group voted then by blackball, an exclusionary process that
allowed a small number to force its will on the majority. If
there were 30-40 knights in the hall they had the option of [voting
with] either black or white balls. If four or five black balls
came up, a candidate would be defeated, Liner said.
Joe and I became very close friends, Liner said. I made it
very clear I was backing [him]. On election night the room was
packed. I knew what it meant. My deputy grand knight received
the ballot box
I just watched his face. There were five
It was Liners job to make the announcement. Distraught, Liner
said he spoke from his heart: As a Catholic I can not continue
as grand knight of this council that has defeated a person because
he is black. I resign from office.
To his delight, there were echoes in the hall: I heard, I resign.
I resign, he said.
The vote made news and Liner said he received threats. But the
publicity forced a change in the blackball system.
Before the vote, my father told me people were quoted in news
articles that they didn't want him in [the Knights of Columbus],
said Jason Bertrand. After the vote, they looked into my fathers
background: Catholic grammar school, high school, Notre Dame,
and a history of church involvement. If anyone should be allowed
to join, here was a guy who should be in. But it just wasnt going
to happen at that time, he said.
Later, Liner and Bertrand met with Cardinal Albert Meyer. I didnt
know if I was going to be driven out of the Knights or out of
the Catholic Church or what
Meyer said, I know what you did
and I fully approve.
The cardinal added that the issue would come before the Knights
state convention, or, the cardinal said, I will disavow the
organization in Illinois.
At the convention the blackball system was voted out. Later, the
groups national organization followed suit.
But Bertrand didnt become a Knight. Following the media attention,
his son said, he moved on. But before his death in 1990, Bertrand
joined the Knights of Columbus, sponsored by Liner.
Over those 30 years, things had changed, and African-Americans
began joining the organization. He just decided, if he found
time to do it, he would, said Jason, who also joined Liners
council in 1990.
Bertrand went on to become active in Chicago politics, serving
as city treasurer from 1971-75 under Mayor Richard J. Daley. Also,
he was 7th Ward alderman while remaining active in his South Shore
parish, St. Philip Neri.
The first successful black candidate for the Knights wasnt Joseph Bertrand. But blacks in their Chicago councils owe much to his desire to become the first.