Native son

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 weren’t 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 Chicago Archdiocese.

Like the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver don’t hold racial requirements to join. One need only be a practicing Roman Catholic. Clavers count Cardinal George as one of their fraternal brothers.

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 weren’t 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 … (and) … I just watched his face. There were five black balls.”

It was Liner’s 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 father’s 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 wasn’t going to happen at that time,” he said.

Later, Liner and Bertrand met with Cardinal Albert Meyer. “I didn’t 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 group’s national organization followed suit.

But Bertrand didn’t 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 Liner’s 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 wasn’t Joseph Bertrand. But blacks in their Chicago councils owe much to his desire to become “the first.”