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Following Father Theodore Hesburgh through the Civil Rights era


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: In 2017, a U.S. postage stamp was dedicated to Father Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame. The postal service citation called him one of the most important civic and educational leaders of the 20th century.

In our century, his story is somewhat less well-known. But a new documentary film has set out to change that. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

Christopher Booker: It was the job Father Ted Hesburgh didn't take that perhaps best illustrates the reverence in which he was held.

Patrick Creadon: There was a point in time where he was actually asked to run NASA. He turned it down. He didn't think that was maybe a great fit for him.

Hesburgh film trailer clip: He advises presidents. He was a mythic figure. He confers with the pope. We heard these stories about this legend. He is chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation. My god, how many lives did this man live? He is Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame.

Christopher Booker: In the late 20th century, very few people held as much behind the scenes power and exercised as much influence as Father Ted Hesburgh.

Christopher Booker: He served on 16 different presidential commissions, helping author and champion some of the most transformative legislation in American History.

Patrick Creadon: We call him "the Forrest Gump of-- of America in the later half of the 20th century."

Christopher Booker: Patrick Creadon is the director of the documentary Hesburgh.

Patrick Creadon: He was this person who sorta somehow popped up all over the place in our society and everywhere he-- everywhere he showed up, he was able to sort of get the tough jobs done that needed to be done. He was never a president. He was never a U.S. senator. He was never a prominent-- news figure or anchorman or anchorwoman. He was - the guy behind the guy.

Christopher Booker: Now you, yourself, attended Notre Dame--

Patrick Creadon: Yeah, we actually kind of crossed paths for a year there. I never met him, but I'd see him on campus. And I certainly knew his reputation. And I knew that he was a major figure-- on the American landscape. But being a documentary filmmaker, I-- I-- I always have a little bit of a skeptical eye. And I really wanted to sorta see for myself if his-- his work really lived up to his reputation. And it did.

Christopher Booker: Hesburgh's journey started as a young college president hoping to transform his university - an effort that required money...which Father Hesburgh was particularly adept at securing through donations. Throughout the early 50's his Rolodex grew even larger - and soon the President of Notre Dame would meet the President of the United States.

Christopher Booker: What would start with an appointment to the National Science Board in 1954, would lead to an appointment to one of the most consequential Commissions in US history - the US Commission on Civil Rights - a group tasked by the president to research civil and racial inequality in the segregated south.

Father Theodore Hesburgh: We are trying to create one nation. It could very possibly be that we are verging through our institutions towards two societies, one black, one white and that wouldn't be America, I don't think.

Christopher Booker: While Hesburgh championed civil rights, he was also an advocate for free speech and the exchange of ideas - even if those ideas clashed with his own. In 1963, a campus group invited Alabama Governor and segregationist George Wallace to speak at Notre Dame. The very same George Wallace who in 1958 had threatened to throw Hesburgh and the other members of the Commission on Civil Rights in jail if they visited Alabama.

George Wallace: The kangaroo civil rights commission set up in this state, for the purpose of intimidating and harassing the citizenship of this state for purely partisan, political reasons.

Christopher Booker: Despite student protests against Wallace's visit to Notre Dame, Hesburgh allowed the speech to take place, but just one year later, the work of the Commission on Civil Rights would be part of major transformation of America.

President Lyndon Johnson: My fellow Americans, I am about to sign into law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Christopher Booker: On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act....outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin....Father Hesburgh was called the architect of the law, but the coming years would be challenging for Father Hesburgh.... his belief in free expression repeatedly tested as student protests against the Vietnam War expanded throughout the country.

Patrick Creadon: He wore a lot of different hats and those-- those-- those jobs that he held were oftentimes in conflict with each other.

Father Theodore Hesburgh: The most natural thing I could do here today is talk about student unrest, but I suspect most of you have had it up to here and I have to admit that I have had it up to here also.

Walter Cronkite: Reverend Theodore Hesburgh today announced a get tough policy. Father Hesburgh said demonstrators will be given 15 minutes to halt their protest, if they don't they will be suspended on the spot. If they do not halt within another 5 minutes, they will be expelled.

Christopher Booker: Your film paints a portrait of Father Ted being on the right side of history for nearly everything--

Patrick Creadon: Uh-huh

Christopher Booker:--except student protest

Patrick Creadon: Yeah, there's a real nuance to that. Father Ted believed that-- that a campus was supposed to be a crossroads of different ideas. He wasn't against protesting. He was against violent protesting or the kind of protesting that would impede someone else's education. And so back in 1970 he ended up-- they ended up expelling five students who had blocked the entrance to-- job interviews that were taking place.

Christopher Booker: With the CIA--

Patrick Creadon: It was the CIA and Dow Chemical, two very unpopular groups during the middle of the Vietnam War.

Christopher Booker: But just over a year later, Hesburgh would become a very public critic of the war in Vietnam - after four students were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State University during protests against President Nixon's expansion of the war into Cambodia.

Father Theodore Hesburgh: There comes a time in life, in personal life and in national life when moral righteousness is more important than empty victory.

Christopher Booker: His speech became known as the Hesbergh declaration, and was signed by 15,000 students and residents of South Bend. Hesbergh sent it to President Nixon in May of 1970. Hesburgh's relationship with Nixon was fraying. A few months later, he and the Civil Rights Commission, against the president's wishes, published a report that detailed the governments slow implementation of civil rights legislation.

Father Theodore Hesburgh: Here is the first complete study ever made of the whole federal establishment as regards, at least civil rights compliance and how we are delivering and what the law says we should do. This says the performance is pretty poor. Always has been.

Unidentified Reporter: You were asked by the White House to delay this report until after the election?"

Father Theodore Hesburgh: They were concerned about the timing and we didn't share their concern as to the political importance of the report.

Christopher Booker: Nixon fired Hesburgh from the civil rights commission in 1972.

Patrick Creadon: I think President Nixon had no idea that Father Ted was gonna become one of his-- one of his most hard-hitting adversaries and I think as history went on, I think Father Ted actually kinda wore that as a badge of honor. He lost his job but he kept his-- you know, he-- he kept his conscience.

Christopher Booker: As a viewer, I did find myself waiting for, "Are we going to get to the Catholic Church sex scandal?"

Patrick Creadon: Yeah. No, that's a great question. It's worth noting that Father Ted retired in 1987. So, in some ways, the story of the s-- of the scandal within the Church really kind of missed Father Ted he just simply wasn't a part of that conversation. That's one of the great regrets I have for Father Ted's story, is that I wish that he was engaged in that conversation and in that problem.

Christopher Booker: But, Father Hesburgh's retirement years weren't silent.....He was still consulted and called upon by presidents, President Bill Clinton awarded him the congressional gold of the highest civilian honors in the country.....and in 2009, when protest erupted before President Barack Obama's visit to Notre Dame, it was Father Hesburgh who reassured the school's administration, that hosting a pro-choice president at Catholic University was the right thing to do.

President Barack Obama: Differences of culture, and religion, and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.

Christopher Booker: Father Hesburgh died in 2015 at the age of 97.

Editor's note: This transcript has been corrected to accurately reflect how old Father Hesburgh was when he died. The video in the plater above will also be corrected.

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