Posted by Niall O'Dowd at 3/21/2009 10:30 AM EDT

Barack Obama’s decision to speak at the Notre Dame commencement on May 17 is a powerful boost for the college and for him personally.

It is an acknowledgment too that South Bend and the surrounding district provided the margin of victory for Obama in the state of Indiana which he carried in 2008—the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to do so. The area is overwhelmingly populated by Notre Dame staff and students.

When I was on the campus in October last the pro Obama forces were at fever pitch. Several students told me that Obama precinct captains were in place in the dorms and that a massive get out the vote effort was underway.

It sounded like old Tammany Hall to me. Voters from states where Obama was a shoo-in were being urged to re-register in Indiana. A complex series of get-out-the-vote maneuvers were underway. The Obama backers sniffed victory in a state that had long thought to be hopelessly in the red column.

The campus was alive with Obama volunteers and the sense of an historic day in the making in the state of Indiana was rife. I never believed until that visit that Obama had a chance in the state. I was not surprised however, when he did win it.

Professor Chris Fox, head of the Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, told me of canvassing door-to-door in an area he would have considered rock solid Republican in times past and only meeting one individual who threatened to set the dogs on him if he didn’t stop canvassing for that ‘N…. word candidate.

It was a remarkable turnaround that Obama carried the day. The Ku Klux Klan was more active in Indiana than in any other state outside the Deep South back in the 1920s. In 1924 a vicious confrontation between Catholic studentsat Note Dame and the Klan occurred, resulting in an Irish win—leading in some history books to the coining of the famed phrase the “Fighting Irish.” The episode is chronicled in Todd Tucker’s book Notre Dame Vs the Klan. Even today, there is an active branch of the Klan in South Bend according to reliable reports.

The anti-Catholic Klan also protested the visit of Eamon De Valera, Ireland’s leader to Notre Dame back in 1919. It didn’t matter. The Notre Dame archives note that, “When he arrived on the campus at Notre Dame, October 15, 1919, the students gave him an enthusiastic welcome. At the conclusion of his address, Notre Dame gave him one of the greatest ovations in the history of the University. "It was," said Mr. De Valera, "the happiest day since coming to America”

So it will be quite some moment when the new president steps on stage to deliver the commencement address on May 17th. Generations of bigotry will disappear as the first ever African American president speaks to the assembled multitudes. He will feel at home there, knowing too that they have delivered for him too.

I feel sure that Father Ted Hesburgh, the legendary Notre Dame figure has something to do with the invite. A veteran civil rights battler, Father Ted often recalls when he was part of the first ever civil rights commission appointed by President Eisenhower looking into racism in the south. They were forced to stay on army bases because their security could not be guaranteed anywhere else. Father Ted eventually resigned from the position in the Nixon era because he disagreed with Nixon’s policies on race and other issues. (His book, God, Country, Notre Dame is a great read)

The Obama visit is sure to arouse controversy on another front – the issue of abortion rights is something that Obama and the Catholic Church are on a collision course over.

It is quite a gutsy move by the college to invite him given the inevitable backlash they will feel from the church establishment.

It will be an incredible day on May 17 at Notre Dame one to “wake up the echoes” in the words of the famous fight song.

When he stands up to speak Obama will break centuries-old cultural and historic prejudices at the college which itself helped break those barriers down.