Civil Rights Commission
“We share the same divine life, that of Christ, our Head . . . if we should despise another, we despise Christ.”
—Father Hesburgh, in Patterns for Educational Growth*
Father Hesburgh was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the newly created Civil Rights Commission in 1957. The commission was intended to terminate the South's filibuster, which was blocking civil rights legislation, especially that which regarded voting rights, from passing and becoming law.
The commissioners initially decided to focus primarily on voting rights and headed to Montgomery, Ala., for their first hearing. Simply finding hotel accommodations for the group, which included one black commissioner and two black lawyers, was extremely difficult because of segregation laws, and it was only through getting President Eisenhower involved that the group was able to stay at the Maxwell Air Force Base. This incident marked the beginning of their challenges dealing with discrimination in the South.
The Civil Rights Commission found through a series of hearings that blacks were being denied the right to vote through a variety of methods in the South, and even in counties where blacks made up a majority of the population, they were unable to vote. After conducting hearings in Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the Civil Rights Commission was scheduled for a final hearing in Shreveport, La. When the hearing was cancelled because a federal judge ruled that the commission was unconstitutional (a decision that was eventually overturned), the commission found itself stuck in Shreveport's heat with uncomfortable accommodations at another military base. Father Hesburgh had the idea to relocate to Land O'Lakes, the University of Notre Dame's research site in Wisconsin.
During their time at Land O'Lakes, the Civil Rights Commission members had time to relax, fish, and bond as a group. This interaction helped contribute to their voting unanimously on 11 recommendations and five to one on the 12th. Their recommendations were submitted in a report to Congress, and the commission was voted to continue for another two years. Over the years, Congress continued to vote in favor of keeping the Civil Rights Commission, and its membership changed periodically as old members stepped down and were replaced by new ones.
Once the Civil Rights Commission had been renewed, its members were able to widen their focus from voting rights to broader topics. Employment, housing, education, administration of justice, and public accommodation were all important issues that needed to be addressed. The Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the civil rights bills of 1965 and 1968, was greatly aided by the Civil Rights Commission's work, which consisted of conducting hearings and writing reports on a variety of issues involving civil rights violations. Father Hesburgh has been called the architect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Father Hesburgh departed from the Civil Rights Commission in 1972 amid disputes with the Nixon Administration about White House policies.
For more information on Father Hesburgh's work with the Civil Rights Commission, please see the following resources:
*Hesburgh, Theodore Martin. Patterns for Educational Growth: Six Discourses at the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1958. Print. Hesburgh, Theodore Martin, and Jerry Reedy. "Civil Rights for All." God, Country, Notre Dame. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Print. O'Brien, Michael. "Growth and Change, 1959–1967." Hesburgh: a Biography. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1998. Print.