For many observers of Catholic education the appellation “Land O’Lakes” signifies one thing: the controversial 1967 declaration on Catholic universities in the modern world, popularly known as the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” drafted at University of Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes retreat center in Wisconsin.
Drafted by Catholic educators led by Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father Ted Hesburgh, the document has been both celebrated for promoting academic freedom and excellence and denounced for facilitating the secularizing of Catholic higher education.
In Patrick Creadon’s documentary Hesburgh, though, long before that 1967 conference, Land O’Lakes appears as the setting for another momentous meeting that produced an important document.
In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower made Father Hesburgh an inaugural member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Two years later, facing a crucial deadline to complete the commission’s final report and recommendations, Father Hesburgh took matters into his own hands.
The commission was made up of Northerners and Southerners, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites. At least one member, John S. Battle of Virginia, was frankly pro-segregation. In first-person voice-over narration read aloud by actor Maurice LaMarche and “inspired by” Father Hesburgh’s writings and recordings, the priest is represented as recalling how he bonded with Battle over a shared love of bourbon.
Commission members had been traveling the South, facing hostility and difficulties of many kinds. In Alabama future governor George Wallace, then a county judge, threatened to jail the members and vowed to burn subpoenaed records rather than turn them over. Authorities at Maxwell Air Force Base initially refused them beds, stating that locals would never accept blacks and whites sharing barracks, obliging Eisenhower to issue an executive order demanding that they be taken in.
Now at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, in scorching weather with planes roaring overhead night after night, the commission appeared to be unable to finish the final report.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.