Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Mike Schneider: Father Ted & Voting Rights

Voting Rights, or the lack of them, are once again on the front-burner of USA politics. Many of us recall passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With JFK’s assassination, ironically, as part of the impetus, and Lyndon Johnson masterfully bullying and shoving it through the Dixiecrat senate, this law had the feeling of a capstone to a century of social struggle. 

It prohibits any voting-law changes that have the effect — regardless of whether the law appears on its surface to be neutral — of discriminating against minorities. At least it did, for almost 50 years. That changed in 2013 with Shelby County v. Holder, in which a 5-4 Supreme Court overruled two lower federal courts to hold unconstitutional the requirement that voting-law changes where there were historical patterns of discrimination had to be OKed in advance by the U.S. Department of Justice. Shelby, in effect, neutered federal Voting Rights law.

Since then Republicans have closed polling places, reduced early voting, purged voter rolls, and added ID requirements. Nearly all these changes are in predominantly African-American districts. In 2016 strict voter-ID in all likelihood stopped Stacey Abrams from becoming the first African-American woman governor of Georgia. Abrams now leads a campaign to oppose voter suppression, and advance the democratic ideal, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, of open access to voting by all citizens. This gets me to “Father Ted” — aka Theodore Hesburgh.

If you’re asking, “Who’s that?,” you may want to see the documentary “Hesburgh.” One of its main story-lines is how Father Ted, though not widely known, is the sine qua non (a phrase suited to someone who spoke 10 languages) of U.S. civil rights legislation. More than any other person, he not only started the ball rolling but followed through to enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

That many people haven’t heard of him — I know from asking around —  is, in itself, a meaningful statement about his style of leadership. If I say he was Ara Parseghian’s boss, some people take notice — since nearly every American has heard of Parseghian — Notre Dame’s most non-Irish football coach since Knute Rockne, and the most successful, provoking thought about whether divine forces had intervened on behalf of a small midwestern Catholic university.

Parseghian took a football team that hadn’t had a winning season in five years (and lost all but two games in 1963) to within one loss — in the last minute of its last game — of the 1964 national championship. “Hesburgh” suggests that what Father Ted did in leading the nation toward meaningful civil rights legislation is more amazing. 

At age 35 in 1952, he became president of Notre Dame and served until 1988, when he was the longest-sitting university president in the United States. He knew personally every president from Eisenhower through Obama, advised most of them and served on many federal commissions. Everyone at Notre Dame during his tenure (which includes me, 1973-76) thinks of him as “Father Ted,” the name he preferred. 

During the era of Vietnam student protest, he gained stature for the “Hesburgh Declaration” (published in the NYT), his letter opposing the war and, at the same time, opposing violence as a means of protest. In refusing to speak against peaceful protest, he broke openly with Nixon, who in 1972 fired him from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. This public stance was primum mobile for me enrolling in 1973 at the University of Notre Dame Law School, after four years (stateside) in the U.S. Air Force — during which I wrote and protested against the war. 

Q: What’s the difference between Father Ted and God? A: God is everywhere; Father Ted is everywhere but Notre Dame. It was the campus joke, a way of noticing Hesburgh’s wide public engagement, including trips to raise funds (which he said he hated, but was incredibly good at), and to recruit faculty and students, having opened Notre Dame to women and encouraged minorities. 

The joke reflects something I didn’t at first realize about Notre Dame, independence from dogma. In conversations with fellow students who were “domers” (ND alums, from the golden dome of the admin building), I learned that a required course in the freshman curriculum included close reading of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, a text I didn’t know until then, one that — as many Vox Populi readers know — starts from the premise, taken as established (Nietzsche et alia), that “God” is a delusion. 

From “Hesburgh,” I learned that Father Ted led American Catholic universities — sometimes in contretemps with the Vatican — in advancing academic freedom. At Notre Dame, the idea seemed to be for many young people to learn that you didn’t need received, untested notions of divinity to lead a full life. Rather, faith is a choice — probably not right for some. The Notre Dame learning environment included a sense, mostly unspoken, that you could best appreciate whatever is divine or soulful within individual spirit if you can joke about it. For a catechized Lutheran agnostic like me, it was refreshing. 

One personal impression of Father Ted has stayed with me. On his return to Notre Dame from a trip, he came into the student lounge with an African-American woman, a law student a year or two ahead of me. A small group, 30 or 40 students, gathered as he spoke off-the-cuff about exactly what I don’t remember, but think it had to do with the importance of student diversity. I remember being affected deeply by his talk, something of his manner, his presence, charisma — to be clichéd about it — resonated with me beyond my experience before or since.

After a Protestant small-town upbringing, getting drafted, basic training (a deeply chastising experience for an inquiring mind), four years in the military, and a war that by its close most of the country opposed, I think his words moved me because they touched feelings not only about civil rights per se, but also about freedom in a larger sense, including personal freedom to learn and become whoever and whatever you are.

“Hesburgh” the movie documents more than a little I haven’t talked about. Somehow, which apparently had to do with Father Ted’s interest and fluency (unusual for a priest and world-class theologian) in nuclear physics, Eisenhower in 1954 appointed him to the National Science Board. Then in 1957 Eisenhower picked him as a charter member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. By dint of his talent for empathy and compromise and pleasure in good cigars, whiskey and fishing, Father Ted became a fishing buddy with the six other commission members — three southerners, three not. To almost everyone’s surprise, especially including Eisenhower, they ultimately produced a report that included an aggressive nine-point plan for civil-rights legislation. 

Near the end of his tenure, Eisenhower did little beyond accepting the report and passing it on to JFK. Because of concern about losing the South in the 1964 election, America’s first Catholic president — to Hesburgh’s consternation — did next to nothing to push for legislation. Thus it fell to LBJ to take action, with Hesburgh helping him to realize, according to the movie, that he had a rare chance for accomplishment. 

Getting laws on the books was, of course, only part of the struggle, and hard as it was, perhaps the easiest part. Hesburgh also led civil-rights commission fact-finding trips to Birmingham, Alabama — thereby inciting the political rise of George Wallace — and joined Martin Luther King in a Chicago civil-rights rally.

Stacey Abrams, at least, isn’t likely to face attack dogs and night sticks, as Hesburgh and many others did. On the other hand, she has and will, no doubt, in this different era face hatred and ugliness he didn’t. Still, sometimes it’s not so bad to recognize that many things — ugly as they are — are in some ways, maybe, not as bad as they once were. Unremembered by many, Father Ted had something to do with it. 


Mike Schneider won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Presswhich in 2017 published his second chapbook: How Many Faces Do You Have?

Copyright 2019 Mike Schneider

Father Ted and Martin Luther King at Soldier Field, Chicago, 1964
The Theodore M. Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame. The library’s exterior facade, which faces the football stadium, includes a large mural (by American artist Millard Sheets) called The Word of Life, more widely known as “Touchdown Jesus.” 

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