Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund is deeply saddened by the passing of Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame University and trusted civil rights advisor to several U.S. presidents. Father Hesburgh died Thursday, February 27th, in South Bend, Indiana at age 97.

A renowned champion of civil and human rights, Father Hesburgh was one of the most influential Catholic priests in modern American history. He held more than a dozen White House appointments under six presidents. He served on the initial U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and later became its Chairman. He also served as Chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Father Hesburgh marched alongside Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight for racial equality. He fought for voting rights, worked to end school segregation, and labored relentlessly in the pursuit of quality higher education. He was the recipient of over 150 honorary degrees from colleges and universities, the most ever awarded to one person, and also received both the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, we think of Father Hesburgh and the prominent role of the faith community in advancing civil rights.

Observing Fr. Hesburgh’s work on civil rights, LDF Board Member Andrew Young observed, “he did it in such a quiet, unassuming, nonjudgmental way that when he was with you, you didn’t have to worry about who was against you.” 

President Obama made a statement: “Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. The lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition.”

Observing the life of Fr. Hesburgh, LDF Director Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill stated, “the civil rights community today mourns the loss of a great leader. Fr. Hesburgh’s civil rights legacy lives on in our civil rights laws today. Importantly, his spirit will guide us as we continue the important work ahead.”