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South Bend statue of Hesburgh, MLK honors civil rights movement

| Monday, January 20, 2020

Two men joining hands stand firmly at Leighton Plaza.

At times, people visiting the area pose next to them taking pictures. A historic snapshot, the statue featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh permanently preserves an aspect of the civil rights movement in downtown South Bend.

Created by local artist, Tuck Langland, the bronze statue depicts the iconic photograph of Hesburgh and King at the 1964 Soldier Field rally in Chicago, when both men came together to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Gretchen Hopkirk
Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. joined hands at a Chicago rally in 1964, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The photograph became a permanent part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 2007, and a copy of it was gifted to former President Barack Obama when he gave the Commencement speech in 2009.

“President Obama knew of Fr. Hesburgh’s involvement in civil rights and actually said to him, ‘I wouldn’t be here today if it had not been for you,’” Tim Sexton, associate vice president for public affairs, said. “So when we look back at the symbol of that picture and that statue, we have to continue to remember both men as we continue to push forward to exemplify change.”

Despite its emblematic nature, the photographer’s identity remains unknown.

In 2016, Langland was tasked with creating the statue by the City of South Bend due to his reputation as a national artist.

“I was aware of the work of a local artist, Tuck Langland, and he was the first person who came to mind when we were searching for a sculptor to complete this work,” Jitin Kain, deputy director at South Bend’s department of public works, said.

Hesburgh is recognized as a civil rights champion, Kain said, especially since he was one of the main architects behind the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Kain, who was tasked with completing the fundraising, identifying a location and selecting an artist for the project, considers the statue more than a simple commemoration of the civil rights movement — he sees it as a representation of the community coming together as a whole.

“The entire project represents community-wide collaboration and commitment to the idea of civil rights and social justice, which Fr. Hesburgh and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both stood for,” Kain said. “During the entire process, the community and donors came together in the spirit of collaboration and provided the funds necessary for the monument. In many ways, it represents the work and commitment of the two leaders who are depicted in the sculpture.”

The sculpture’s installation represents an approximately $300,000 city-led project that was funded through both public and private donations.

“We had strong commitments from the University of Notre Dame, including a couple of generous donors who helped make this possible,” Kain said. “Additionally, we received significant grants support from the Community Foundation. Local residents and businesses also came together to provide the rest of the support to make the monument possible.”

After an approximately 18-month-long process of collecting funds and creating the piece, the sculpture was unveiled in a ceremony held in June 2017, exactly 53 years after the rally originally took place in Chicago.

According to Kain, several hundred people attended the ceremony, including former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, University President Fr. John Jenkins and several community leaders.

Events included a march from the Civil Rights Heritage Center to downtown South Bend and a lineup of speakers. The ceremony finished with the sculpture’s unveiling and the group coming together to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Sexton described the event as “the mix of South Bend,” and said the event demonstrated an important sense of community unity.

“As a community we still have opportunities for improvement, but I think this was a way of showing we can come together,” Sexton said. “These are two men who exemplified what we want to be, and that’s why it was so special to see the diversity at the actual dedication.”

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