Fr. Hesburgh served on the Civil Rights Commission and he is seen as a principal proponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fr. Hesburgh knew Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. well and worked with him in advancing the cause of integration in the United States. For his role in the civil rights movement, Fr. Hesburgh was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000.
Donnelly recognized Fr. Hesburgh and other civil rights leaders from Indiana in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.