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Professor details Hesburgh legacy

Catherine Owers | Tuesday, October 1, 2013

University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh earned national renown for his contributions to academia, politics and religion. In a Monday lecture in Washington Hall titled “The Civil Rights Legacy of Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh,” professor Jennifer Mason McAward said his advocacy on core civil rights issues in the 1960s especially changed the face of the nation.

McAward largely focused on Hesburgh’s involvement with the United States Commission on Civil Rights from 1957 to 1972 in her address.

 “The story of Fr. Hesburgh’s civil rights advocacy is a key to understanding how he emerged, in the words of Vice President Biden, as ‘one of the most powerful unelected officials this nation has ever seen,'” she said.

McAward said it is important to understand the philosophical and theological framework forming the basis for Hesburgh’s views on civil rights.  

“For him, the crucial starting point is the sacred nature and God-given dignity of the human person,” she said. “Fr. Hesburgh argues that if compassion were the overriding conviction of our lives, then we would necessarily seek abiding human solutions to the great inequalities and injustices of our time.”

Hesburgh’s time on the United States Commission on Civil Rights gave him the opportunity to learn directly about the suffering and closed opportunities experienced by racial minorities in this country, she said.

The Commission toured areas throughout the South and “documented extensive voting rights and other civil rights violations,” she said.

 “Over time, it expanded its inquiries into housing, employment, education, public accommodations and the administration of justice,” McAward said.  

From the inception of the Commission, Hesburgh was a strong member and had great impact on much of the civil rights legislation passed in the era, she said.

“By the end of Fr. Hesburgh’s tenure on the Commission, including nearly four years as chair, Congress had enacted roughly 70 percent of the Commission’s recommendations, incorporating them into critical pieces of civil rights legislation, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968,” she said.

When Hesburgh first joined the Commission the majority of primary and secondary schools throughout the South were segregated, despite the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, McAward said. The Commission held extensive hearings on this issue, and determined that financial incentives could be a means through which integration could be achieved.

“Indeed, Fr. Hesburgh became the leading proponent of promoting non-discrimination through the threat of withholding federal funds,” she said. “The following year, the entirety of the Commission adopted Fr. Hesburgh’s approach but only on a limited basis, recommending that Congress withhold funds from public colleges and universities that engaged in racial discrimination.

“That wasn’t enough for Fr. Hesburgh, who wrote a second statement that the same condition should apply to all private schools, as well. The Commission adopted this recommendation the following year.”

Additionally, Hesburgh exercised leadership on voting rights in a number of ways, McAward said.

“He, of course, participated in the Commission’s influential policy recommendations, and he personally testified before Congress in support of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but he also intervened individually on behalf of frustrated African-American citizens,” she said.  

The Commission heard testimony on a case in New Orleans, La., of a white registrar striking some 2,000 registered African Americans from the voting records, McAward said. To re-register, these citizens were required to present two registered voters who could testify on their behalf.

“Of course, there were no more registered African Americans who could serve as witnesses, and no registered white would vouch for a black voter,” McAward said. “The Commission heard of this problem from an African-American man who had been disenfranchised.”

Unable to provide to provide witnesses, this man, a U.S. Army captain, went to the registrar with photo identification, his federal tax income, his professional credentials in dentistry and his honorable discharge from the Army, and still he was turned away, McAward said.

“Upon hearing this story during a televised hearing, Fr. Hesburgh said, ‘Captain, I believe you, and I am sure everyone who is watching this on television believes you. Go back to that registration place tomorrow morning – if they don’t register you, call me immediately and let me know because I will then call the President of the United States, and I will tell him that one of his army officers is being prevented from voting in LouisianaI can promise you the President will make things so hot for everyone that they will wish they had never heard of him.’ It appears that the local voting registrar was indeed watching Fr. Hesburgh on television.”

Hesburgh became a national figure as a result of his service on the Commission and was the group’s most prominent member during his tenure, McAward said.

“He turned down requests to run for the Senate and the Vice Presidency, and instead became an uncompromising and savvy advocate for equality in the face of state and local resistance,” she said.

Contact Catherine Owers at cowers@nd.edu