This past Thursday night, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, passed away. Obituaries in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and other prominent venues have recounted his legendary accomplishments and stories associated with him.
Hesburgh, of course, is the priest to the left of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the picture at the top of this page, one that was taken in Chicago in 1964. Appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Eisenhower in 1957, taking on the chair of the commission in 1969, Hesburgh was far more than a figurehead in the civil rights movement. He traveled the country hearing of and writing reports on African-Americans who lacked access to voting, housing, jobs, education, opportunity, and justice. When the commission was hobbled by partisan wrangling in its early years, he brought the members to a Notre Dame retreat at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin for a day of fishing and eating steaks. The agreements achieved there paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
In 1971, Hesburgh tussled with President Nixon over Nixon’s opposition to school busing. Shortly after Nixon’s re-election in 1972, he asked Hesburgh to resign and Hesburgh accepted.
Hesburgh sought to continue his civil rights legacy by founding the Center for Civil and Human Rights in 1973. Today, as a result of Hesburgh’s own influence, the Center stresses human rights, which it promotes around the globe. But we never forget what Hesburgh did for America’s historic civil rights struggle. A large scale version of the picture of Hesburgh marching with King hangs in our lounge.
It was perhaps the greatest episode of Hesburgh’s leadership as President of Notre Dame. First, he was motivated directly by the commitment to social justice that he derived from being a priest. He said that “priest” would be the one word that he would want on his tombstone. Second, it was leadership that made a great difference in the lives of Americans and that strengthened the country’s founding ideals. Third, it was a sign of his national reputation that his leadership had already garnered that he was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission after only five years into his tenure as university president.
May this legendary American, and even more so, this extraordinary priest, rest in God’s eternal peace.