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Hesburgh speaks on Civil Rights, MLK

Robert Singer | Friday, January 16, 2009

As University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh prepared to tell an audience about his role in the Civil Rights movement Thursday night, he shared a revealing thought about the movement’s prominent leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I often wish that Martin had lived not just to bring his message to people but to see that his message has finally gotten through,” Hesburgh said, asserting the successes of the movement King led.

Hesburgh spoke in a panel discussion called “Witness to a Movement” in the Annenberg Auditorium, at the Snite Museum of Art. The panel also included Dr. Richard Pierce, associate professor of history, sophomore Franco Zamara, law student Jessica Kim and Dina Harris, Indiana University-South Bend director of Foundation Relations.

Hesburgh commented on the present state of race relations while also recounting the role he took in the movement that eventually brought him side-by-side with King. A famous photograph of the duo during a rally at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1964 is now part of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Hesburgh’s experiences with the Civil Rights movement date back to 1957, when he was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission to help recommend legislative solutions to racial problems.

According to Hesburgh, the Commission, which included two black members, often met resistance when traveling through the South, as many businesses turned them away.

However, he noted that the legislation recommended by the Commission, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was successful due to Lyndon Johnson’s determination to make a name for himself in history.

“The fact is that Lyndon Johnson single-handedly got that bill through and it was the toughest, roughest bill that our commission could write,” he said.

Hesburgh described what he viewed as the enormous improvement that has taken place in race relations since then, saying that he had long viewed the election of a black president as a barometer to measure racial progress.

“By some miracle, today we are preparing to inaugurate our first black president next Tuesday,” he said.

Hesburgh said that the legislative and political battle for racial equality is all but over and pointed out that current law has the capacity to prevent discrimination.

“Now is the time to take all of the instrumentalities that we have and use them intelligently and forcefully,” he said. “The laws are very strict and very clear and there are enough people around who want to apply them.”

Hesburgh also shared some of the history of Notre Dame’s own racial struggles.

“Even when I came to Notre Dame in 1934, there wasn’t a single black student on campus,” he said. “When I came back with a doctorate’s degree to teach, there was one black student.”

The sole black student was there by accident. According to Hesburgh, the Navy’s ROTC program had misplaced him.

While Hesburgh said he was proud of the racial progress made at Notre Dame, he is still determined to improve the situation.

“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.”

Equal representation is a difficult challenge facing the entire country, according Hesburgh.

“It’s an uphill battle not just at [Notre Dame], but everywhere in the country, in companies and schools all over the place,” he said. “Per capita, we probably spend three times as much money attracting the top black students as we spend attracting the top white students.”

When Hesburgh was asked to describe his greatest joy, he talked about the student body’s commitment to service and the construction of the new Center for Social Concerns.

“I think we have a great student body with all kind of talent who by and large are on the side of the angels on most moral questions,” he said. “When you stop to think that we’re building a building over here for 14 million dollars because so much of the student body is doing some service to humanity, I think this is a very healthy state of affairs.”