Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March for Life

Next week we once again reflect on two anniversaries: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Many pro-lifers see themselves as heirs to the passion for justice in the civil rights movement. But since his controversial visit to Notre Dame in 2009 President Barack Obama holds an honorary law degree from one of America’s premier Catholic universities. Notre Dame also honored Obama with a photograph of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, long-time president of Notre Dame who served on the United States Civil Rights Commission, arm-in arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a civil rights rally in 1964. The photograph is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—a memorial to Catholic participation in the historic civil rights movement.

But the photograph does not escape the irony behind a great Catholic university’s gift of an honorary law degree to a man whose open support for legalized abortion directly contradicts Catholic support for the natural law. The version of the photograph destined to hang in the National Portrait Gallery cuts out the second priest, on the other side of Martin Luther King—Msgr. Robert Hagerty, who led busloads of Catholics from the Chicago area to the very first March for Life. Msgr. Hagerty is representative of all those Catholics who grasped—with Martin Luther King, Jr.—that fighting for civil rights begins with a recognition of eternal and natural law.

Notre Dame clearly intended both to honor Obama as the first African-American president—the great sign of the victory achieved in the long American struggle for civil rights—and to celebrate the role that Catholics played in the civil rights movement, a period of coming of age for American Catholics. In the 1960s Catholics joined African-Americans in the streets and in the voting booths. The election of the first ever Irish Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, meant victory for the Civil Rights Act despite opposition from members of his own party. Even his assassination could not stop it. The photograph of King flanked by Hesburgh and Hagerty was taken at a civil rights rally on June 21, 1964 in Soldier’s Field, Chicago. Newspapers at the time said the rally became a “gigantic hootenanny,” a “tremendous victory celebration” after the passage of the Civil Rights Act by the House of Representatives only two days before.

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But, we recall that Obama must have savored the gift in a more particular way because had used the same photo during his election campaign in a YouTube video that encouraged Catholics to vote against pro-abortion candidates. The YouTube video dovetailed with American Catholic bishops’ efforts to clarify that the pro-life issue has a pre-eminent position because respect for the equal dignity of every human life is the foundation of all other Catholic social teaching. Just before the election Texas bishops Kevin Farrell and Kevin Vann of the Dallas-Fort Worth diocese issued a joint statement:

[The United States Bishops’ document] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship clearly teaches that not all issues have the same moral equivalence. Some issues involve “intrinsic evils”; that is, they can never under any circumstance or condition be morally justified. Preeminent among these intrinsic evils are legalized abortion, the promotion of same-sex unions and “marriages,” repression of religious liberty, as well as public policies permitting euthanasia, racial discrimination or destructive human embryonic stem cell research. … [W]e cannot make more clear the seriousness of the overriding issue of abortion—while not the “only issue”—it is the defining moral issue, not only today, but of the last 35 years. … This electoral cycle affords us an opportunity to promote the culture of life in our nation.

Notre Dame’s handing over the photo suggested that despite his promotion of an “intrinsic evil,” Obama could be recognized as the successor of Rev. King in the fight for civil rights.

But in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King quoted Thomas Aquinas to justify his program of civil disobedience: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Obama’s support for legalized abortion means disregard for both eternal and natural law on the most fundamental of all points, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Msgr. Robert J. Hagerty, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago and secretary to Cardinal Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States for 25 years as well as Vatican Secretary of State and dean of the College of Cardinals, is arguably the more representative Catholic figure than Hesburgh. Hagerty’s trajectory from civil rights activism to pro-life activism based on an unchanging clarity about civil law’s proper relation to natural law is more typical of the popular Catholic revival inaugurated by the pontificate of John Paul II. Hesburgh represents conformity to academic fashion that is intensely unwilling to take clear counter-cultural Catholic stands on moral issues related to human sexuality and family.

Msgr. Hagerty was the “hero priest” of Chicago, who had run into a flaming hotel to awaken and rescue the sleepers. But after the excitement of the civil rights movement, he humbly returned to parish work. There he quietly defended the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of marriage in practice day in and day out through his priestly ministry. Apparently, though, in all those years of faithful parish work, Msgr. Hagerty never lost the “fighting Irish spirit” he had put to great effect on the streets of Chicago. One parishioner remembers Msgr. Hagerty as “an untiring defender of civil rights”:

He was behind busloads of parishioners throughout the Archdiocese traveling to Washington to protest Roe v Wade.  I have a photo of him walking the streets of Washington with fellow parishioners with a street width banner reading, “Protect our most precious gift, the unborn.”  It was amazing how many people he got to band together to head for Washington every January.  He is pretty much of a legend here at St. Norbert’s parish.  He was unabashed at defending truth. Martin Luther King and Msgr. Hagerty were both champions for equality in human life. Msgr. Hagerty had the real fighting Irish mentality—fighting in defense of the truth! Isn’t that what a priest is called to do:  be another Christ?  Not a politician.

Because of the fidelity of many unsung heroes like Msgr. Hagerty over decades of patient pastoral work, young Catholics have learned to revere the sanctity of human life from birth to natural death. The March for Life has grown over the years—from 300,000 to 600,000 participants. The younger Catholics—the “JPII Generation” and those they have educated—refuse to turn a blind eye to such central issues as human sexuality, the family, and the dignity of every human life.

The younger generation of Notre Dame students and alumni who will take to the streets in next week’s March for Life is more in step with Msgr. Robert Hagerty’s inspired leadership than Hesburgh’s own generation who, more than anything, yearned for acceptance from a cultural establishment hostile to Catholic values. College students today know nothing about debates over Marxism and “liberation theology” but in ever-increasing numbers they embrace the clear Catholic social justice program that Benedict XVI laid out in that fiery text, Caritas in Veritate:

If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one that demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.

The fidelity of “a few good men” stands out with even greater brightness and that fidelity is bearing fruit.


  • Susan Hanssen

    Professor Susan Hanssen is an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas, where she teaches American Civilization on their Dallas campus during the school year and Western Civilization on their Rome campus in the summer.

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