With today being Jackie Robinson Day for Major League Baseball — albeit a virtual one in these quarantine times — I was curious if the trailblazing Hall of Famer and civil rights activist ever crossed paths with a different American hero from another of my main interests: Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame.
Father Hesburgh was president of the university for 35 years (1952-87) but also made an impact off campus during his long and honorable life, particularly as a member of the Civil Rights Commission. From 1954, when President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Science Board, Fr. Hesburgh met every man to hold that office until his own death in 2015. But considering Fr. Hesburgh’s work in advancing civil rights, I wondered if he ever crossed paths with Jackie Robinson.
While I couldn’t find any photographs of the two men together, they did interact at least once in public: When Robinson appeared at a hearing on housing before the Civil Rights Commission on Feb. 3, 1959. He was two years and two months removed from his retirement in December 1956 and a vice president at Chock full o’Nuts Coffee. But he appeared before the commission as a director of Modern Community Developers, Inc., a company created to promote integrated housing.
Speaking at the morning session in New York that day, Robinson made it clear he knew who Fr. Hesburgh was. “I want to say, first of all, I deeply appreciate the fact that the Commission is looking into discrimination in housing and, knowing the great work you do, Father Hesburgh — I don’t happen to know the work of the other two gentlemen as well as I know your great work — I am very positive that something good and concrete will develop from this meeting here,” he said in his opening remarks, according to the commission’s transcript of the hearings.
Robinson’s statement takes up a little more than three pages of the publication — I won’t hazard a guess at how long he spoke — and then Fr. Hesburg asks him two questions before one of the other commissioners poses a query to Robinson. And then his appearance at the hearing is finished. In fact, before Robinson spoke, the commission’s staff director, Gordon M. Tiffany, introduced Robinson by saying that he was appearing sooner than expected because of another engagement, which may have played a part in how long he stayed.
There’s a famous photo — at least among the Notre Dame community — of Fr. Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” at a rally in Chicago in 1964. A copy of the photo hung in outside Fr. Hesburgh’s office on the 13th floor of the library that bears his name on Notre Dame’s campus. I saw it in 1998, when I went to interview him during my senior year for a story in the campus newspaper, The Observer. We were coming up on the 30th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and I used that as an excuse to meet Fr. Hesburgh in a one-on-one setting.
In the story I wrote for the paper, I noted that the rally in Chicago was “a housing march and prayer service,” but I can’t remember now if that description came from my research or from something Fr. Hesburgh said. If it was a housing march, it’s possible Robinson was there, though it seems unlikely because there’s no record of it. He had a relationship with Dr. King and devoted a chapter to him in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, so if he was in Chicago that day, he probably would’ve been a part of that singalong.
Father Hesburgh died at 97 in 2015, having lived a long and, by all accounts, noble life. Robinson passed away way too young, at 53, having accomplished so much, though he undoubtedly could’ve done so much more.
“I think it’s never quite where you want to get it,” Hesburgh told me 22 years ago, speaking about civil rights in America. “It’s something that you have to keep working on. … This isn’t something that you can just pass along. It’s something you have to work at all the time. It’s not automatic. We’ve inherited a very bad legacy, since the days of slavery. And it’s not easy to turn that around, because color should be irrelevant.”