By Mike Schneider
Voting Rights, or the lack thereof, are once again on the forefront of U.S. politics. Many of us remember 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 approved in advance by the 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 requirements 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 brings 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 storylines is how Father Ted, though not widely known, was the prime mover of U.S. civil rights legislation. That many people haven’t heard of him — I know from asking around — is, in itself, a meaningful statement about his style of leadership.
At age 35 in 1952, he became president of Notre Dame and served until 1987, 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 (myself included, 1973-76) thinks of him as “Father Ted,” the name he preferred.
During the era of Vietnam protest, he gained stature for the “Hesburgh Declaration,” his letter (in the New York Times) 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 the main reason I enrolled 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.
“Hesburgh”, the movie, documents more than a little I haven’t talked about. In 1957, President 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 to achieve what his predecessors chose to pass over.
Getting laws on the books was only part of the struggle, and although difficult, was perhaps the easiest part. Hesburgh also led 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, 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.
A longer version of this article is online at the Vox Populi website: https:// voxpopulisphere.com/2019/06/05/ mike-schneider-father-ted-votingrights/
Mike Schneider won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press, which in 2017 published his second chapbook: How Many Faces Do You Have?