Fr. Hesburgh's Human Rights Legacy


Fr. Hesburgh often blessed meals with this Latin American prayer: “Lord, to those who hunger give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” Animated by his own hunger for justice, Fr. Hesburgh fought tirelessly for human rights at the University of Notre Dame, in the United States, and around the world.


In 1957, early in his tenure as President of Notre Dame, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Fr. Hesburgh to the newly-established United States Commission. This bipartisan, independent commission of the U.S. federal government was charged with investigating, reporting, and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues that face the nation. Established three years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Commission took aim at the scourges of Jim Crow and de jure racial segregation.
During Fr. Hesburgh’s 15-year tenure, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated and documented voting rights and other civil rights violations throughout the American South and drafted federal legislation to address injustices in housing, employment, education and public accommodations.


In a lecture commemorating Fr. Hesburgh's civil rights legacy, Notre Dame Professor and CCHR faculty affiliate Jennifer Mason McAward explained Fr. Hesburgh’s and the Commission’s game-changing impact on the law of the United States, with Congress enacting “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.” From the exhausting fact-finding missions to the final deliberations over wording, Fr. Hesburgh was acknowledged as the principal architect of the Civil Rights Act. Fr. Hesburgh’s personal connection to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was captured in the well-known photograph, hanging in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, of him joining arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a 1964 civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field.


Fr. Hesburgh wrote that “civil rights had few friends in the Nixon administration.” Nevertheless, he was willing to criticize that administration in public, and the criticism rankled enough for Nixon to force his resignation in 1972. Fr. Hesburgh’s principled, tireless work to dismantle his country’s apartheid system made history; he was, as Vice President Joe Biden observed in 2013, “one of the most powerful unelected officials this nation has ever seen,” and changed American society.
After leaving the Commission, Fr. Hesburgh brought his fight for civil rights back to Notre Dame, along with U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division attorney Howard Glickstein and the records of their research. In 1973, Fr. Hesburgh with the financial support of the Ford Foundation, founded the Center for Civil Rights at Notre Dame Law School, with Glickstein as its first director. Fr. Hesburgh’s vision for this new Center focused on bringing the University’s research and teaching to bear on the issues of justice that animated his own role on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Soon after, Notre Dame’s Center for Civil Rights became the Center for Civil and Human Rights (“CCHR”) to reflect Fr. Hesburgh’s conviction that the work for justice should, in his words, encompass the “totality of human rights.” Fr. Hesburgh had argued for this same focus in congressional testimony during his tenure, advocating for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to expand its title and mandate to include human rights, grounding its work on the fact that all people have the right to be treated fairly due to their humanity. This same commitment to extend respect and empathy to all corners of the globe were in evidence in 1974, when Fr. Hesburgh participated in the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations. There, Fr. Hesburgh helped focus U.S. policy in Latin America on opposing the "plague of oppression" the Commission found existed in the region. Soon after, Fr. Hesburgh was instrumental in helping to launch the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
While never losing sight of its initial U.S. civil rights focus, the CCHR has followed this admonition to take on the larger job of fighting for international human rights. In the 1980’s, Fr. Hesburgh asked his South African friend, Justice Richard Goldstone, what Notre Dame could do to support the fight against apartheid. Justice Goldstone’s response was direct: “Educate our lawyers.” CCHR responded by training lawyers from South Africa, then bringing in lawyers facing the human rights challenges in Chile and Argentina, to work for human rights in their home countries.


Four decades later, the CCHR enjoys an international reputation as a premier program for educating human rights lawyers from around the world through its LL.M. Program in International Human Rights. “Changing the world, one human rights lawyer at a time,” the CCHR has trained over 360 human rights lawyers from more than 90 countries, combining academic excellence with a commitment to advancing respect for human dignity throughout the world. The CCHR LL.M. alumni network includes government ministers, law school deans, prominent jurists, leaders in international organizations and founders of non-governmental organizations throughout the world. Year after year, Fr. Hesburgh welcomed the new classes of CCHR human rights lawyers to Notre Dame at the CCHR’s September welcome reception, giving them encouragement to succeed in their studies and carry on the fight for justice across the globe.


Fr. Hesburgh was proud of the CCHR’s dedication to real-world impact, observing “[n]o other University of which I am aware makes this kind of investment in international human rights law on this scale.” He described himself as “passionately committed to the Center and its work.” He saw the CCHR as a force to address all that “remains to be done to achieve full equality of rights for all of our citizens and the other citizens of the world.”
For decades, Fr. Hesburgh worked tirelessly so that Notre Dame would be a worldclass research and teaching institution dedicated to defending dignity across the globe. He established the architecture of his vision on “three legs of the stool”— peace, justice, and social equality. Two of the legs, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, are fully endowed and their future is secured. A core Notre Dame fundraising priority today is to raise an endowment for the Center for Civil and Human Rights as the third Institute in Fr. Hesburgh’s design for promoting human dignity across the globe. Fr. Hesburgh wrote: “It is vital that Notre Dame have the resources needed to continue this expression of our mission of service to humanity. I urge you to support the Center for Civil and Human Rights as generously as you can.”

Fr. Hesburgh's reflections on Notre Dame's commitment to human rights, as embodied in the mission of The Center for Civil and Human Rights, may be viewed here in four two-minute videos.
Prof. Jennifer Mason McAward's presentation, "The Civil Rights Legacy of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.", may be viewed here.
Harris Wofford was Fr. Hesburgh's counsel on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Mr. Wofford offers a remembrance here. An additional Wofford tribute to Fr. Hesburgh appears here, at Huffington post.