Father Hesburgh championed Civil Rights

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s note: Notre Dame president emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh died Thursday night, a university spokesman has confirmed. He was 97.

The following is an excerpt from the 2004 book Notre Dame Stadium Stories by Tribune sports writer Eric Hansen in which Hesburgh reflects on his time as ND’s president, his role in America’s Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh was never so touched as when a young black man walked into his office in the mid-1950s and handed him a check for $5,000.

“He was one of our first black football players and he had just been given $5,000 for joining the pros,” recalled Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. “He gave me the check and said, ‘Give it to some poor kid, because I was poor when I came here, and you had to buy me a sport coat. Well now I’m graduating. I can earn my own money. I want to give something back to this wonderful place.’ ”

Black students has been on the campus for less than a decade at that time, and there were still very few of them. By the 1960s, the numbers began to increase. So did Hesburgh’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. He had been appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“The hypocrisy of segregation in the North is as bad as the rigidity of segregation in the South,” Hesburgh said in a 1964 interview with the South Bend Tribune’s Jack Colwell. “And if I had to choose, I think I’d choose the South as the better, because at least they’re honest about their feelings.”

Hesburgh knew he’d rankle some feelings as he pushed for equal opportunities on his own campus.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “When I came here to teach in 1945, there was only one black student on campus, and he was here through the Navy. It was a 100-year tradition. It had been that way forever. And the myth was that if we let more black students in, in larger numbers, then the white students would leave. We had a lot of kids from Southern states.

“Well, there was only one student who I can remember who actually did leave. His mother was upset there was a black student in his dorm, Farley, for which I was a rector. She said, ‘Either he’s out by tomorrow morning or my son is back on the train to New Orleans.’

“I said, ‘We’ll miss your son.’ ”

Eventually, Hesburgh was missed by the Civil Rights movement. In 1971, he released a report critical of the Richard Nixon administration and was quickly purged.

“The report said the worst provider of rights for minorities ought to be the best, namely the government,” Hesburgh said. “But they indeed had the worst record for hiring minorities in a city that was more than half minorities. Well that made them look awfully bad.”

Hesburgh was asked to hold the report until after the election, but he refused.

“And I got the ax,” he said.

And wielding the ax, according to Hesburgh, were Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Assistant for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman and Attorney General John Mitchell. Two years later, the three were implicated and eventually imprisoned for their roles in the Watergate scandal.

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, second from left, and Rev. Martin Luther King join hands at the Walk for Freedom Civil Rights March in 1964. Hesburgh, who died Thursday night, was Notre Dame president and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights when King spoke at the university in 1963. (AP File Photo)