The University of Notre Dame and civil rights groups are not unfamiliar entities, and their connection lies in their leaders.
Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sang “We Shall Overcome” on June 21, 1964, while at a civil rights rally. The image was acquired by the Smithsonian and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, though copies are also seen on campus at Notre Dame, most notably in the west archway of the LaFortune Student Center. Hesburgh was also the university president who allowed women to enroll as students in 1972, just forty years ago.
At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Discussion and dinner, student leaders gathered to confer on topics including America’s role abroad, the use of social media, poverty and inequality and the Notre Dame Catholic identity. The chat was brief, and I hope students will continue the conversation beyond what was tossed around over delicate salads and exquisite cakes.
Spotting a student whom I had encountered (and interviewed) previously, I bundled up in my overcoat and scarf and accompanied him on the brisk walk to our dorms.
A pro-life advocate and previous participant in the March for Life, he speculated his invitation to partake in the dinner was a result of his involvement in the well-resourced Right to Life organization on campus. His first comment?
“I’m not going to the March for Life this year,” he said matter-of-factly. “Perhaps if there were more opposition. During the civil rights movement, people were hosed down with water from fire hydrants. We’re not. Our protest just doesn’t have any sort of visual imagery. At the end of the day, we have to persuade you with words. And everyone is pretty set in stone with their views on abortion. I just don’t see the point.”
The March for Life occurs annually as a protest in Washington, D.C., where pro-life advocates gather to raise awareness about their cause. Notre Dame offers an all-expenses-paid trip for students who want to attend. They also grant coveted university-excused absences for those missing class to attend. Though I did not apply for one for my trip to the inauguration, knowing full well the result, my colleagues did try their luck to no avail.
I entreated him to go into greater detail.
“We carry signs that say ‘Stop Abortion,'” he told me. “I find it more beneficial to talk with students who maintain different views than my own and figure out where we have common ground. If I can get my guys together and he can get his guys together and we can all find one policy option we agree on, then who is going to stop us from building a bipartisan coalition and getting something done about abortion?”
I was astounded. There remain people in the world who are willing to compromise?
“Too many conservative politicians in D.C. take the all or nothing approach,” he furthered. “Either they pass their entire bill, untouched, and parade their triumph, or they boycott everything until they get their way. Look at gun control. They could take a trick or two from the liberals who are taking a step by step approach to reform. First, background checks. Then they can try for limiting magazines and models.”
My peer wants to start with getting third trimester abortions banned, which account for less than one percent of all abortions performed in the U.S.. This rare and invasive procedure is tough for pro-choice supporters to defend and the photos are grotesque. Plus, there’s much scientific evidence out there that the procedure poses safety risks to the mother. And of course, the new Sundance film also explores the practice.
“We must act” came from the mouth of a leader oft compared with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the progressive thinkers of our past. But it never seemed more appropriate than when I spoke with a pro-life brother.