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From the Archives: Notre Dame student takes beating for civil rights

, and | Monday, January 27, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

On Friday, Notre Dame wrapped up its fifth-annual Walk the Walk Week, an event week created to engage the tri-campus community in conversations about diversity and inclusion.

We all know the famous picture of Fr. Hesburgh standing arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a civil rights rally in Chicago. But what other civil rights stories lay hidden in our history, lost to the passage of time?

Here’s just one.

Notre Dame student beaten, threatened by police while fighting for civil rights in Georgia

Nov. 10, 1966 | Dennis O’Dea | Researched by Evan McKenna

In many ways, the fulcrum of the American civil rights movement was the South. While social tensions roiled Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, civil rights remained “purely academic” in the North, Observer editor Dennis O’Dea wrote in a Nov. 10, 1966 column. In O’Dea’s opinion, Notre Dame was no exception.

But one Notre Dame student — Brian McTigue (’68) — decided to join the fight, and worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference over the summer of ’66. (At the time, the SCLC was led by Dr. King.)

Two months into his service, McTigue and two other SCLC workers went to Johnson County, Georgia to help register voters. One day, they were apprehended by the authorities and accused of soliciting charity donations without a license — an excuse often used by police to thwart civil rights work, O’Dea noted. The officers questioned the volunteers extensively before letting them go.

At around 9:30 a.m. the following morning, the county sheriff and several other men broke into the home where the volunteers were staying and kidnapped McTigue. He asked them who they were, what they wanted and if he was under arrest. Receiving no answers, he demanded to speak to a lawyer. “We’re going to kill you first,” the sheriff said to him.

The officers drove McTigue to an abandoned building, where they beat him. Afterwards, they took him to the county courthouse and demanded a $500 bond for resisting arrest. The sheriff told McTigue he would be tried in court that day.

The sheriff also told McTigue an unnamed man volunteered to “shoot [him] in the streets” if he was released. The court sentenced him to one year of hard labor at the Georgia State Penitentiary, though in the end the judge commuted the sentence to a $500 fine.

The next morning, McTigue travelled back to Notre Dame, badly beaten and out $1,000. But he also carried with him a powerful story of advocacy.

McTigue tries, and fails, to appeal to the law for compensation

Sept. 28, 1967 | Observer Feature | Researched by Sarah Kikel

The Observer followed up with McTigue 10 months after O’Dea’s original column. He planned to fly back to Wrightsville, Georgia to testify as a witness against Sheriff Attaway — the officer who beat him and threatened to kill him for his civil rights work.

McTigue recounted the challenges he faced registering voters in the South. Even when he would successfully convince some residents to register, fear of local law enforcement often kept them from following through. Law in Wrightsville “seems to have an absolutely meaningless, and perhaps even a diabolical, arrangement with order,” the feature said.

Later, federal investigators discovered the court where McTigue was convicted “was not legally empowered to pass sentence.” After all, McTigue was arrested outside of the municipality of the court. However, the case’s statute of limitations under Georgia law had already expired, leaving McTigue without hope of regaining any of the $1,300 the encounter cost him.

Law in Wrightsville “seems to have an absolutely meaningless, and perhaps even a diabolical, arrangement with order.”

(Note: The Observer never followed up on McTigue’s testimony against Sheriff Attaway. He would go on to lead Vietnam War protests on campus.)

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