The Picture of Purpose

Richard Conklin | January 25, 2018

On a late spring day in 1964, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, answered the phone with an invitation. Martin Luther King’s crusade had moved north to Chicago, and a massive rally was being planned for June 21 at Soldier Field. The caller told Hesburgh that Mayor Richard Daley and Catholic church officials had turned down invitations. Would Hesburgh, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, show the flag for church and state? 

Hesburgh agreed. As he later told the story, on the day of the rally — a date that would become famous for the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi — he was mingling in the crowd when someone on King’s staff spotted him, and he was hoisted onto the platform. He gave an impromptu endorsement of the milestone Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in the nation’s schools and public places, and was awaiting President Lyndon Johnson’s signature.

“Be proud to be a Negro,” he told a crowd estimated at 57,000. “We want to strive for dignity with you.” He linked arms with King to sing the movement’s anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

A still-unknown photographer captured the moment, and, while Hesburgh received a copy of the photo shortly after the rally, it didn’t take off in the campus imagination until much later. Hesburgh was presented with another copy of the photo following his talk at a King remembrance at Emory University in 1988. The snapshot was promptly given a position of honor in his library office, but it was not to be the end of the photo’s journey. That came on October 9, 2007, in Washington, D.C., when an audience of Beltway and Notre Dame dignitaries gathered at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and Portraiture. They were there to celebrate the long career of public service by Notre Dame’s president emeritus and to accept the Soldier Field photograph for the museum’s gallery honoring those who searched for justice in the 20th century.

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Originally published by Daily Domer Staff at dailydomer.nd.edu on January 25, 2018.