THE POST'S account of the life of Patricia Roberts Harris, who died Saturday at the age of 60, emphasized the "firsts" -- first black to serve as a delegate to the U.N., first black woman to become law school dean, ambassador, Cabinet member. One thing about firsts is that people sometimes tend to forget them as they are succeeded by seconds, thirds and so on.
Sen. William Proxmire made this mistake during hearings on Mrs. Harris' nomination to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration. Proxmire saw before him a woman whose career was marked by success and whose reputation stood high in the governing establishment, and he wondered aloud about her ability to be "sympathetic to the problems of the poor."
"You do not understand who I am," Mrs. Harris replied. "I am a black woman, the daughter of a Pullman car waiter. I am a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn't start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think I have forgotten that, you are wrong."
Mrs. Harris' statement was characteristically, tough and forceful -- attributes that often go with being first in areas where, for no good reason, you are not wanted -- such as a segregated Washington lunch counter where Mrs. Harris led a sit-in by a group of fellow Howard University students in 1943. If some complained that she wasn't playing an activist role in the civil rights movement in the '60s, she could reply, "When I sat in there was nobody else to do it."
Her Cabinet tenure was in departments whose constituency is made up of people living on the edge. She ran the departments hard and fought for them fiercely. "She always impressed me as someone who cared very much about people who were not getting a decent shake, and she also impressed me as being tough as nails when it came to taking care of their interests," said Jody Powell, who was President Carter's press secretary.
Along with the firsts and the ups in her career there were the downs -- a term as dean of the Howard University Law School cut short by a dispute over student protest, and her defeat in the 1982 race for mayor of this city. But no one should doubt that in all her work she showed she had not -- as she made clear to Sen. Proxmire that day eight years ago -- forgotten either her own past or some of the darkest moments of this country's past.