I had a powerful emotional experience the other night as I visited the new memorial in downtown South Bend commemorating the moment in June 1964 when Notre Dame’s President, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, joined hands with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic rally for civil rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. That moment was captured in a famous photo that now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington and is displayed ubiquitously at Notre Dame and beyond.
The memorial is a striking sculpture by local artist Tuck Langland that presents the two great civil rights icons crossing hands as they sing “We Shall Overcome.” The City of South Bend and our progressive Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled the statue at a public event last week.
Unable to attend the ceremony during the week, I walked over to the memorial Saturday evening on my way to a local restaurant. The fading light of dusk gave a special luster to the bronze. I stepped slowly toward the statue, feeling the spiritual power of the image and its historical meaning. As I stood there alone on the sidewalk, holding back tears of joy and admiration, a car slowly pulled up and stopped in front of the statue.
A distinguished looking older African American gentleman in a suit stepped out of his elegant new car and walked up to the statue. We stood there for a few moments in silence. Then he turned to me and said “if they hadn’t assassinated Dr. King and the Kennedy’s think of how much more progress there would be than what we have now.” I nodded and shared the story of Fr. Hesburgh receiving a call that June day so long ago, Dr. King asking him to come to Soldier Field. Hesburgh did not equivocate. He asked, ‘what time do you need me?’ and got into his car and drove to Chicago. “That’s the kind of commitment to justice we need today,” I uttered. He nodded, and we shook hands.
As I strolled away, the tears poured down. The visit to the memorial had felt like a religious experience, a moment of redemption and inspiration. I especially sensed the spiritual presence of Fr. Hesburgh, whom I had the privilege of knowing and who founded the Kroc Institute where I proudly serve.
The sculpture has the hands of Hesburgh and King reaching out, inviting all of us to grasp our hands with theirs in the continuing struggle for justice and human rights.