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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Fr. Hesburgh leaves behind legacy of equality

Fr. Hesburgh, second from left, links arms with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to his right, and sings
University Archives
University Archives
Fr. Hesburgh, second from left, links arms with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to his right, and sings "We Shall Overcome" during a 1964 civil rights rally at Chicago's Soldier Field.

“The good Lord and Creator meant for every man, woman and child to enjoy his or her human dignity, and until all do, here and elsewhere in the world, we must be charged to move ahead more quickly with our unfinished human business, which as John Kennedy said, must also be God’s, too.”

Widely known as a leader in civil rights, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh penned these words in a 1972 editorial on racial justice in the New York Times.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Hesburgh to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957, and the committee was tasked with recommending legislative solutions to national racial problems, according to Hesburgh's autobiography, "God, Country, Notre Dame."

According to Hesburgh, the commission, which included one African-American commissioner and two African-American lawyers on the legal team, often met opposition traveling through the South, as many hotels and businesses refused to serve them.

Despite these setbacks, over 70 percent of the commission’s suggestions were made into federal law, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the autobiography said. Hesburgh continued his work on the commission after these successes, knowing the Act would not end racial inequality on its own.

“It is a part of my real hope for America that all, or most, of this daily affront to the human dignity of blacks was outlawed in one day by the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he wrote in the 1972 editorial.

“But there is no known way of outlawing prejudice, and all of us whites must confess that the sense of white superiority is still deeply rooted within us.”

Hesburgh strongly believed that education could be used as a tool to combat social injustice.

“Children are not born with prejudice; they have to acquire it,” he wrote in the 1972 editorial.

“An important prerequisite for living in a pluralistic society is education in a milieu free of prejudiced, stereotyped judgments about people who are different. Classroom instruction in the democratic goals of tolerance and understanding affirms and strengthens what is learned in the living integrated context.”

President Nixon appointed Hesburgh chairman of the Civil Rights Commission in 1969, a position Hesburgh held until 1972, when Nixon dismissed him from the chairmanship for his and the commission's criticisms of the administration’s civil rights record, according to Hesburgh's autobiography. However, the work that Hesburgh did in 15 years on the commission resonates today.

“I point you to the fact that the president of the United States is today a black man, and that when I began working in the Civil Rights Commission, a black man couldn’t have any decent job, and now he’s president of the United States,” Hesburgh said in a 2013 interview with The Observer.

Over his time at Notre Dame, Hesburgh also worked tirelessly to integrate the campus fully.

“When I came to Notre Dame in 1934, there wasn’t a single black student on campus,” he said in a 2009 talk at Notre Dame on the Civil Rights Movement. “When I came back with a doctorate’s degree to teach, there was one black student.”

The sole African-American student was at Notre Dame by accident; the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps had incorrectly placed him at the University, Hesburgh said.

“When I became president, it was not a fair nation. … It simply did not carry out the opening words of our Constitution as a country: ‘We take these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal,’” Hesburgh said in the 2013 interview.

“... That’s a wonderful goal for a nation. It’s the opening words of our Constitution. And I think in the time of my presidency and work in Washington, we made those goals come true.”

When Arthur McFarland, class of 1970, arrived on Notre Dame’s campus in 1966, he was one of twenty-eight black students, he said.

“In the fall of 1967, my roommate, Bill Hurd, along with other African-American students, began discussions about the lack of inclusion of black students and black culture in the life of the University except in football and basketball,” McFarland said.

“We saw a ‘race problem’ on campus. We invited black students from Saint Mary's to participate in these sessions.

“As a result of these meetings, we agreed to create a student organization to address our concerns with the University administration.”

By McFarland’s graduation in 1970, the administration had addressed each of the objectives presented to Fr. Hesburgh in 1968 by the group.

“It is clear that Fr. Hesburgh's efforts in the national struggle for civil rights informed his response to our demands as well as those of other student leaders on what appeared to be a rapid transition to a more open and inclusive campus,” McFarland said.

“His high profile as a Catholic and civil rights leader during the height of racial tensions in America dictated that Notre Dame be an example for others to follow.”

Thomas Hawkins, class of 1959, was the Notre Dame basketball team’s first African-American All-American. During his time at Notre Dame, a South Bend restaurant refused to serve him because of his race, Hawkins said. Fr. Hesburgh encouraged Notre Dame students to avoid the restaurant until it publicly apologized to Hawkins, he said.

“Fr. Ted always preached the dignity of man regardless of race, creed or color,” Hawkins said.

“He marched with the champion of human rights, Dr. King. Fr. Hesburgh was far ahead of society.

“He made it perfectly clear to the nation that anywhere Notre Dame’s minority students weren’t welcome, neither was Notre Dame.”

During Fr. Hesburgh’s time, the first African-American man was appointed to the Board of Trustees. Bayard Rustin, a prominent civil rights leader, was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1969, according to an Observer article from that year.

In 1973, Hesburgh founded the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame, Daniel Philpott, director of the Center, said. The Center today has educated 300 human rights lawyers from 30 different countries, Philpott said.

“All of this continues to draw inspiration from Fr. Ted's founding vision,” Philpott said.

“… Soon after I became director in January 2014, I went to see him in his office on the 13th floor of Hesburgh Library.

“I told him how pleased and honored I was to be taking up the directorship of the center that he founded and how I hoped to build the center into an endowed institute. ‘Dan, now is the time,’ he replied.”

In 2009, Hesburgh said he was proud of the racial progress he had made at Notre Dame, but the fight was not over yet.

“I still say that I won’t rest until we have the same percentage of black students at this University that we have in the general population,” he said.

“I don’t want to rest until the institution that I love best has done its part to make blacks noble citizens of this great land.”

For Hesburgh, the notion of equality is tied intricately with the ideas of democracy and greatness.

“Remaking our beloved American in its professed image can be adventurous, inspiring, exciting, even fun,” Hesburgh wrote in 1972. “We must be willing to shuck the status quo when it is retrogressive, unjust and going nowhere. We have to be open to change and alert to the great values that inspired this land’s beginning and led it to greatness.”