Harris Wofford

    • APR 09


    • An Amazing Childhood World Tour

    • Joins the Air Force

    • Marries Clare Lindgren

    • Introduces Indian Non-violence to Southern Civil Rights activists

    • OCT

      Martin Luther King reads one of Harris' powerful speeches on Gandhian non-violence

    • Joins Father Hesburgh at the US Commission on Civil Rights

    • OCT

      Harris gets John F. Kennedy to call Mrs. King when MLK is in Jail

    • Special Assistant to President Kennedy for Civil Rights

    • Helps found the Peace Corps

    • MAR


    • President of Bryn Mawr College

    • NOV 05

      Elected U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

    • Co-authors the MLK Service Day law

    • Leading the Corporation for National Service

    • APR

      The Presidents' Summit on Service & America's Promise

    • FEB

      Gives Early Endorsement to Obama

    • FEB 15

      Harris Receives the Presidential Citizenship Medal from President Obama

  • Born

    Harris was born in New York City, the son of Harris Llewellyn and Estelle.
    By Steven Waldman
  • 2

    An Amazing Childhood World Tour

    "When Wofford was eleven, his widowed grandmother from Arkansas invited him to accompany her on a six-month tour around the world. Traveling by freighter, the pair spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and visited Shanghai months after the Imperial Japanese Army had ransacked the city; in Rome, he watched Benito Mussolini announce Italy’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. “There was a fascist torchlight parade afterwards,” Wofford recalls, “so this was my seventh grade.” But the most momentous stop of his voyage came in India, where he became fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolence. What started as a boyhood curiosity ended up changing the course of Wofford’s life, and countless others." -- New Republic
    By Steven Waldman
  • Joins the Air Force

    By Steven Waldman
  • Marries Clare Lindgren

    Harris married Clare Lindgren in a ceremony in South St. Paul, Minnesota. The following year they travelled together to India and wrote the book, India Afire.
    By Steven Waldman
  • Introduces Indian Non-violence to Southern Civil Rights activists

    Harris takes Ram Manohar Lohia, a major Gandhian activist from India, to visit the Highlander Folks School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where they teach the faculty there about Gandhian non-violent theory and tactics. Soon thereafter, Rosa Parks attends Highlander, and learns about nonviolent civil disobedience.
    By Steven Waldman
  • Martin Luther King reads one of Harris' powerful speeches on Gandhian non-violence

    "King recalled reading a copy of a talk on the application of nonviolent tactics against segregation that Wofford gave at Hampton Institute in October 1955. King later stated, ‘‘this talk and other talks … were widely distributed in the South, helping to create better understanding of what we were doing in Montgomery’’ (King, March 1961). Wofford participated, along with King, in a convocation at Howard University in November 1957. Speaking on ‘‘Non-Violence and the Law,’’ Wofford told the gathering that ‘‘what Martin Luther King has given us is the unadulterated message of nonviolence which Gandhi wanted the Negroes finally to deliver to the world.’’ King used some of the ideas expressed in this speech in his chapter, ‘‘Where Do We Go from Here?’’ in Stride Toward Freedom. King wrote in the preface to this book that he was grateful to Wofford ‘‘for significant suggestions and real encouragement’’ (King, 11)." (King Encylclopedia, Stanford University)
    By Steven Waldman
  • Joins Father Hesburgh at the US Commission on Civil Rights

    "Father Hesburgh was a major factor in my life and in the life of the country. I was a young lawyer in Washington, D.C., at Covington & Burling LLP, and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower was president. I wrote a memo about the creation of the civil rights commission, which the White House had. The first commission had three Southern members and three Northern members. Each commissioner was to have his own legal counsel.

    Father Hesburgh came out of a White House meeting and called me at the law firm on the telephone out of the blue. He said he had read my memo and liked it, and, after we met, he offered me a job working as his counsel at the commission. He said that I'd be making less money, but I would be making an important contribution to the country. So, on April Fool's Day, 1958, I signed on.

    The commission delivered a unanimous report to President Eisenhower, who hadn't expected this diverse group of commissioners to ever agree on anything.

    Eisenhower was surprised how the commission worked so well together. Father Hesburgh explained to Eisenhower "that we [commissioners] are fishermen." Eisenhower replied, "Then I should start appointing more fishermen to these commissions.".
    By Steven Waldman
  • Harris gets John F. Kennedy to call Mrs. King when MLK is in Jail

    "Mr. Wofford was largely responsible for John F. Kennedy’s highly publicized call to Coretta Scott King after her husband was arrested and jailed on trumped up charges during civil rights demonstrations in 1960. Despite initial protests from campaign manager Robert Kennedy, the call turned out to be crucial in winning the vote of African Americans in an extremely close election."

    In his biography of King, Parting the Water, Taylor Branch tells the full story:

    In Washington, Harris Wofford, a friend of King in the civil rights section of the Kennedy campaign, responded to the alarm that same day by drafting a dignified statement of protest for Sen. John Kennedy to make.

    His draft was promptly buffeted around in the Washington campaign headquarters and over the wires to the Chicago suburbs, where Kennedy was making speeches.

    Inevitably, phone calls buzzed down into Georgia and back by the dozens, and Wofford was soon hearing that Gov. Ernest Vandiver had promised to get King out of jail on the condition that Kennedy make no public statement about the matter. Vandiver wanted to send out a strong, clear signal of segregationist resolve in Georgia.

    The governor and his allies won the quick round of infighting within the Kennedy campaign, which earned the loser, Harris Wofford, a quick mollifying call from Sen. Kennedy that night.

    "What we want most is to get King out, isn't it?" Kennedy asked. Wofford agreed. Still, he was miserable when Coretta King called soon thereafter wanting to know if he could help. He could not tell her about the Vandiver agreement, for fear that public news of it would make Vandiver renege on his promise, and he had no other good news to offer.

    Disconsolate, Wofford went out for an after-work beer with co-worker Louis Martin. The two of them groped for ideas. They wanted to do something to help, but it had to be something that would not run them into the political buzz saw inside the campaign.

    Out of these constraints came their idea of getting an important personage to call Coretta with encouragement. This was only a small gesture, but it was something that would make them feel better. Politically, they knew that there might be some advantage if they could keep the gesture beneath the threshold of white attention. If Vandiver and his allies were not aroused in anger, the Kennedy campaign might be able to spread the word privately among Negro voters.

    Wofford called his own boss, Sargent Shriver.

    Shriver gave him the kind of flyspeck attention lower aides usually get from officials standing within 30 feet of a candidate for President. In emergency shorthand, Wofford blurted out the headlines--King snatched off to state prison, no release from Vandiver, Coretta hysterical, the campaign civil rights office swamped with calls.

    He said he and Louis Martin had given up the idea that Kennedy should make a public statement, but they had something simpler and less controversial in mind.

    "If the senator would only call Mrs. King and wish her well," Wofford said, "it would reverberate all through the Negro community in the United States. All he's got to do is say he's thinking about her and he hopes everything will be all right. All he's got to do is show a little heart. He can even say he doesn't have all the facts in the case. . . ."

    A Hurried Agreement

    "All right, all right," Shriver said hurriedly. "Give me her number." He took down the King home number in Atlanta, put it in his pocket, and rejoined the huddle around Kennedy.

    Shriver waited, hoping that Ted Sorenson, Kenny O'Donnell, Pierre Salinger, Lawrence O'Brien, and the other members of Kennedy's Kitchen Cabinet would rush off to telephones and typewriters. He did not want to mention Wofford's idea in their presence.

    If they did not strangle the idea on sight, the aides, who liked to speculate about how contemplated moves might play in the New York Times, would object that Kennedy could not possibly do anything quiet in the King case, which was on that morning's front page.

    Finally, Kennedy said he was not feeling well and went into the bedroom to lie down. Shriver alone followed him. Gently but urgently, he repeated Wofford's proposition, stressing what he called King's "lousy treatment" in jail and Mrs. King's emotional breakdown.

    "I think you ought to give her a call, Jack," he concluded.

    Kennedy sat up wearily on the bed. "What the hell," he said. "That's a decent thing to do. Why not? Get her on the phone."

    Short Phone Call

    Shriver quickly pulled the paper from his pocket and dialed the number. When Coretta identified herself, Shriver said, "Just a minute, Mrs. King, for Sen. Kennedy," and handed the phone to the candidate on the bed.

    After greeting her, Kennedy said, "I know this must be very hard for you, and I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me."

    "I certainly appreciate your concern," Coretta said. "I would appreciate anything you could do to help."

    It was over within two minutes. Coretta called King's mother, Alberta, fairly bursting with the news, and Shriver sneaked out the back door of the suite before the aides arrived to whisk Kennedy to the plane.

    Later that night, the Kennedy campaign plane landed in New York. As Kennedy stepped off the plane, a reporter asked him if it was true that he had called Mrs. King earlier that day.

    "She is a friend of mine," said Kennedy, who had never met Coretta and never would, "and I was concerned about the situation." As he brushed past the reporter, he said something softly about having a traitor in his camp.

    News of Call Spreads

    Still, the reporter had a confirmation. The next morning's New York Times contained a 2-inch item on Page 22 noting that Kennedy had made a sympathy call to Mrs. King, and that a Republican spokesman said Vice President Nixon would have no comment on the King case.

    In Atlanta, Donald Hollowell dispelled a far more intense gloom that morning when he trumpeted the news that Mitchell had changed his mind and signed an order to release King on $2,000 bond.

    Later that afternoon, after King had been released, his father, Martin Luther King Sr., at a spontaneous mass meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church, made an announcement that he had promised Wofford earlier that day.

    "I had expected to vote against Sen. Kennedy because of his religion," he declared. "But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. I've got all my votes and I've got a suitcase, and I'm going to take them up there and dump them in his lap."

    The crowd roared approval, and roared again when civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy said it was time to "take off your Nixon buttons."

    Test of Faith

    But King himself, almost visibly compressed by the sudden shift from prison to politics, spoke more personally about jail as a test of faith.

    "We must master the art of creative suffering," he said. All he said about the presidential election was that he would never let a candidate's religion determine his vote.

    Two weeks later, as legions of analysts sifted the results of Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard Nixon, it did not take them long to discover that the most startling component of Kennedy's victory was his 40% margin among Negro voters. In 1956, Negroes had voted Republican by roughly 60% to 40%; in 1960 they voted Democratic by roughly 70% to 30%.

    Telephone Call, Victory

    Many clouds distorted or obscured interpretation of the pivotal election, which emerged as a kind of mythological puberty rite for the United States as a superpower.

    Still, one plain fact shined through everywhere: A phone call about the welfare of a Negro preacher was a necessary cause of Democratic victory.

    From the book, "Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63" by Taylor Branch. Copyright, 1988, by Taylor Branch
    By Steven Waldman
  • 2

    Special Assistant to President Kennedy for Civil Rights

    Here, Harris talk about John and Robert Kennedy's concerns about the march on Washington.
    By Steven Waldman
  • 2

    Helps found the Peace Corps

    Harris worked with Sargeant Shriver to create the Peace Corps, and later became the Associate Director, and the Special Representative to Africa, and director of the Ethiopia program. This is a short documentary about Harris and the Africa Peace Corps contingent.
    By Steven Waldman
  • 2


    About his participation in the Selma March, Harris wrote in Politico:

    "Martin Luther King Jr. liked to joke that I was the one member of his legal team who would help him go to jail rather than using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out. I’d originally connected with King after returning from travels in India in 1949, soon after Gandhi was assassinated. My wife and I had followed Gandhi’s trail and gotten to know many of his supporters. And while I was learning everything I could about Mahatma Gandhi, King was doing the same.

    After I returned home from India, as a young lawyer, I volunteered to help King apply the Gandhian strategies that interested us both so much in the United States. Before the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, E.D. Nixon, leader of the Montgomery NAACP, had shared with King a Hampton University talk in which I argued that the burgeoning American civil rights movement should embrace Gandhian civil disobedience as one of its core tactics. In the years ahead, I had a fascinating window into the movement King was creating.

    This weekend, we mark half a century since Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, the last of three marches begun in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965 to champion a voting rights act. But it would be a mistake to remember only that third march, which triumphantly reached the capitol steps in Montgomery—or the first terrible march, which ended in “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. To fully appreciate King’s skill as a leader, we need to remember the second march—the one that was cut short when King made the hard decision to comply with a temporary federal court injunction prohibiting a march and turn back to Selma instead of continuing on to Montgomery. At that pivotal moment, the quintessential American advocate of civil disobedience chose to obey the law blocking his path. And in so doing, King paved the way for the successful third march and then passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later.

    Selma came after a decade of what King considered seasons of non-violent protest. After a first attempt at a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by John Lewis, ended in violence on “Bloody Sunday,” he issued a nationwide call for participants in a second Selma march. Then news arrived that Federal Judge Frank Johnson, a strong supporter of civil rights, had issued a temporary injunction. He ordered that there be no march until the legal argument for a march and the issue of ensuring marchers’ safety could be discussed in his court. (Judge Johnson’s injunction and King’s response to it are an important part of the story not told in the compelling film Selma.)

    King faced a quandary: When should a reasoned follower of Gandhi decide to obey the law? Although Gandhi had advocated nonviolent civil disobedience in opposition to unjust laws, this temporary injunction did not seem unjust.

    A number of us in Selma argued against a confrontation with the federal judiciary. King was accustomed to breaking discriminatory state laws, but had never before violated the orders of a federal court. Martin listened to our case: that we march towards but not to Montgomery and ask everyone to return when the injunction was lifted to complete the march. He asked me doubtfully, “Do you think people really would come back?”

    King knew that if he obeyed the injunction and postponed the march, Judge Johnson could ultimately provide federal protection for a future march. But King also understood that if we did not march right away, he risked losing control of the impassioned civil rights supporters who had gathered from across the country and were demanding a response to Bloody Sunday’s brutality at the bridge.

    As we walked together toward Brown’s Chapel, where the would-be marchers had gathered, King said, “This was a prayerful decision. Sometimes you don’t know whether you are making the right decision or not, but you have to decide. We have to march today.” He added softly, “But we may not march very far.”

    To the hundreds of marchers, King announced that we would march peacefully in obedience to a higher law. He often liked to invoke the Constitution, and as a former Notre Dame constitutional law teacher I wanted the justification of the First Amendment if we were going to break the injunction. Writing on my yellow pad, “First Amendment” in large letters, I passed the note up to King as he spoke. He was eloquently invoking the Bible to support the march, and then, glancing down at the note, he added, “And we march in the name of the Constitution, knowing the Constitution is on our side. The right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances shall not be abridged. That’s the First Amendment.”

    So the march began, silently, two abreast. From the windows and sidewalks of Selma, hundreds of white residents watched wordlessly. We marched up the Edmund Pettus Bridge and saw ahead a thin blue line of state troopers and a great mass of police cars blocking the road. From a loudspeaker came a command to halt and disperse."

    Read more:
    By Steven Waldman
  • President of Bryn Mawr College

    Harris was selected as the fifth president of Bryn Mawr College, a prestigious women's college outside Philadelphia. He expanded the school's international outreach and enrollment and spearheaded a successful capital campaign that helped dramatically improve the school's financial standing. He served until 1978.
    By Jacob Finkel
  • Elected U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

    When Senator John Heinz was killed in a plane crash, Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey appointed Harris Wofford, then his Secretary of Labor, to fill the seat. He ran for election to the seat against the sitting U.S. Attorney General, Richard Thornburgh. He started the race 40 points behind in the polls but won by almost 10 points -- a victory partially attributed to his strong support of national health care. Here's one of Harris's ads
    By Steven Waldman
  • Co-authors the MLK Service Day law

    Harris teams up with Rep. John Lewis to make the Martin Luther King holiday focus on service projects.
    By Steven Waldman
  • 3

    Leading the Corporation for National Service

    In 1994, President Clinton appointed Harris to head the Corporation for National Service, the government agency that runs AmeriCorps as well as pre-existing service programs such as Vista and Foster Grandparents and Service Learning. When he arrived, the Congressional Republicans had targeted the program for elimination. Wofford simultaneously crafted an inspiring vision for the program, and struck a deal with Republicans to improve and save the program. During his tenure the program great in scale and political support.
    By Steven Waldman
  • 3

    The Presidents' Summit on Service & America's Promise

    Ever combining the pragmatic with the idealistic, Harris came up with the idea of a Summit on service for all the living Presidents. He pulled it off in part by getting Colin Powell to play a critical role. The Summit was attended by Presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton, Bush (41) and Nancy Reagan, as well as nearly 30 governors and 100 mayors. It also spawned America's Promise, which Colin and Alma Powell have led since. Most recently, President Obama followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and signed the America's Promise pledge.
    By Steven Waldman
  • Gives Early Endorsement to Obama

    As a Clinton ally, Harris drew much attention when he endorsed Obama, declaring, "He has the transforming vision of what we should do with our politics and our relationship with the world that goes right into the soul of me."
    By Steven Waldman
  • Harris Receives the Presidential Citizenship Medal from President Obama

    President Obama with a beautiful tribute to Harris, as he awards him the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Citizenship Medal.
    By Steven Waldman