“Kamala had a fearlessness that, if it was something she believed in, she wanted to be actively involved, and actively engaged, and not sit on the sidelines,” Whitfield said recently when I called her at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, where she is assistant dean of business education. “She was unwavering in her commitment. That’s what I remember. It wasn’t reckless, but it was just, you know, this is what we should do.”
To Harris, the activism felt natural. “I was born in that,” she told me while visiting her alma mater to speak to students at a women’s leadership forum in February. “My parents were active in the movement. So this was very familiar territory to me.”
As Harris campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, the senator from California has said she is who she is “for two reasons: because of my mother and the family I was raised in and Howard University.” If her family gave her the confidence to stand up for her beliefs, it seems clear that Howard reinforced her political passion and instilled a sense of responsibility to exercise it.
The spark that prompted the 1983 sit-in was university president James Cheek’s decision to expel the editor of the Hilltop student newspaper, Janice McKnight — who had published a Howard employee’s accusation of discrimination against the university. School officials claimed the expulsion was because McKnight allegedly gave untruthful information on her Howard application. The fracas over freedom of the press ballooned to encompass student outrage over an array of issues, from apartheid in South Africa to Cheek’s seemingly close relationship with the conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan.
On a Thursday afternoon, 150 to 200 students occupied a floor of the administration building. Supporters outside lit candles and sang, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. ... Cheek must resign.”
The sit-in ended peacefully Friday afternoon. McKnight was reinstated; Cheek did not resign — and it’s unclear how much really changed on campus because of the sit-in. But for Harris, it belonged to that aspect of a Howard education that lodges deeper inside than majoring in economics and passing free time in the main quad known as the Yard. It was being part of something conceived of, led and carried out by a cadre of young African Americans who felt unstoppable. “That was the beauty of Howard,” Harris wrote in her recent memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” “Every signal told students that we could be anything — that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success.”
Harris had picked up the Howard vibe on her first day, at freshman orientation in Cramton Auditorium. “I remember standing in the back of the room, looking around Cramton, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! We’re all in one place under one roof!’ ” she recalled in her February speech on campus. In contrast, she sketched the post-Howard world the students would likely experience: “You’ll be in situations, and people will look at you and say, ‘Oh, you’re special. You’re different. You’re unique.’ And maybe they mean that as a compliment. But there is another interpretation of that, which is to suggest that somehow you’re a unicorn. That you are the only one like you. That you’re alone. But, see, what a Howard University student and then graduate knows is that we’re never sitting in those rooms alone. ... We are all in those rooms with you.”
The year of the sit-in, Harris also ran for her first elected office, winning the position of freshman representative on the Liberal Arts Student Council. And she was active in the movement against apartheid; freshman year, according to her memoir, she participated in demonstrations “almost every weekend.”
Lita Rosario, now an entertainment lawyer in Washington, noticed Harris’s verbal skills and recruited her onto the debate team. “I remember, like me, she was able to handle the guys” in debate competition, Rosario recalls. Sonya Lockett was in the forensics society, a public speaking squad that traveled to competitions with the debate team. “She was always extra-prepared,” Lockett, now chief impact officer for a film finance company in Los Angeles, told me. Today, on television and on the campaign trail, Lockett notes, voters are glimpsing two sides of Harris that were evident back then: her rhetorical chops and her “big, goofy laugh.” “That person you see sitting on the Judiciary Committee was the person on the debate team,” she says. “The person with that loud laugh was the person when we got back on the bus.”
Along the way, Harris took advantage of only-in-Washington jobs and internships. Framed on the wall in her Senate office is a thank-you letter from the office manager of former U.S. senator Alan Cranston of California. It’s a sweetly mundane letter — “We miss your cheery ways” — except for the journey it signifies: Cranston’s Senate seat was next filled by Barbara Boxer. And then it was won by the former summer intern from Howard University.
Concluding her remarks to the students at Howard in February, Harris alluded to the sit-in and the struggle against apartheid. “These are the moments in time that are going to require us to step up and stand out and speak up,” she said. She reminded the young people that they will face their own calls to action in an era when questions of race and equity seem as unsettled as ever. “Years from now, you’re going to look back on these days. ... I want that you will be able to talk about not just how you felt but what action you took — what you did, how you spoke up, how you stood out, how you marched when necessary, how you shouted when necessary. How you made your university proud, and how you continued in the tradition of the great Howard University.”
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.