The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harris Wofford, civil rights activist who helped Kennedy win the White House, dies at 92

Harris Wofford in 2016. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Harris Wofford, a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, university president and lifelong crusader for civil rights who made a crucial contribution to John F. Kennedy’s slender victory in the 1960 presidential contest, died Jan. 21 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92.

The cause was complications from a fall, said his son, Daniel Wofford.

Raised in a privileged business family, Mr. Wofford attracted national media attention as a teenager during World War II. He helped launch the Student Federalists group, an organization that sought to unite the world’s democracies in a battle against fascism and to keep the postwar peace.

Mr. Wofford became one of the first white students to graduate from the historically black Howard University Law School in Washington. He was an early supporter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and marched alongside him in the civil and voting rights flash point of Selma, Ala. Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother who served as U.S. attorney general, once referred to Mr. Wofford as a “slight madman” in his zeal for advancing civil rights.

Mr. Wofford went on to a wide-ranging career, serving as President Kennedy’s special assistant for civil rights, helping Kennedy in-law R. Sargent Shriver launch the Peace Corps and heading two colleges, including Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania.

In 1991, he defeated a giant of Pennsylvania politics — former Republican governor and U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh — in a special election to become the state’s first Democratic senator in more than 20 years. In Philadelphia in 2008, he introduced then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) before the stirring “A More Perfect Union” speech on race relations during the presidential race that would propel Obama to the White House.

In 2016, Mr. Wofford described the merging of his personal and political ideals in an essay published in the New York Times, “Finding love again, this time with a man.”

Mr. Wofford, by then a widower, described how he met Matthew Charlton, an interior designer 50 years his junior, and the two became a couple. The essay ended with Mr. Wofford’s announcement that he and Charlton would soon exchange marriage vows. They wed that year.

The courtly, professorial nonagenarian said he did not consider himself gay. “Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between,” he wrote. “I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love.”

‘A part of the magic of love’: How Harris Wofford fell for a man 50 years his junior

He admitted that he had once viewed same-sex marriage, which was legalized in a landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, as a political impossibility. But, as he reflected in the essay, the dramatic social and political change he had witnessed decades earlier should have banished such pessimism.

The 'blue bomb'

In 1960, student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and restaurants were exploding across the South. That October, at one such protest in Atlanta, King was arrested and jailed.

His predicament worsened after the judge in the case learned of a prior conviction: Several months earlier, King and his wife had been driving a white friend to the hospital in a neighboring county and were pulled over by a police officer suspicious of the interracial group of travelers. The civil rights leader, who had been found guilty of driving with an out-of-state-license, a misdemeanor, was sentenced to four months of hard labor.

His wife, Coretta Scott King, then pregnant with their third child, feared her husband would be killed in jail. Her fear turned to terror after he was yanked from his cell in the middle of the night and taken to a maximum-security prison in Reidsville, Ga. By the time she reached Mr. Wofford, a friend since the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, she was hysterical.

Mr. Wofford, who had been a lawyer for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights before joining the Kennedy presidential campaign, wanted to help but understood the political risks. Knowing that any overt sympathizing with the jailed leader might alienate Southern white voters, Kennedy’s top strategists ruled out any action. His opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, also was staying out of the fray.

Mr. Wofford helped hatch a plan.

“The idea came to me. . . . Why shouldn’t he just call Mrs. King?” Mr. Wofford recounted in the oral history “Voices of Freedom” by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer. “She was very anxious. . . . Why can’t Kennedy at least just call her and say, ‘We’re working at it; we’re going to get him out. You have my sympathy.’ A personal, direct act.”

With encouragement from Shriver, Kennedy placed the call during a campaign stop in Chicago.

King was released the next day after Robert Kennedy, his brother’s campaign manager, made another call — this time to the judge. He drove home the political importance of freeing King and assured the jurist that his help would make him “a welcome visitor in a future Kennedy White House,” biographer Larry Tye wrote in his 2016 book “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.”

In black communities across the country, “the grapevine telegraph lit up” with jubilation over the Kennedys’ efforts, Tye wrote.

Mr. Wofford led the charge to tout the phone calls in a pamphlet distributed at black ­churches across the country the Sunday before the election. Dubbed the “blue bomb” because of the color of the paper on which it was printed, it contrasted “No-
Comment Nixon” with the “Candidate With a Heart.” It also featured a powerful endorsement from King’s influential Baptist preacher father.

The pamphlet “circulated below the registry of the news and white culture. It had enormous influence among black voters,” King biographer Taylor Branch said in an interview. Executed behind the backs of the campaign’s leaders, it “shows Harris Wofford’s real shrewdness and possibly his decisive role in history.”

Kennedy won the election by 84 electoral votes and a popular margin of 112,000 votes. Seventy percent of black voters cast their ballots for him. In “The Making of the President, 1960,” historian Theodore H. White credited Kennedy’s success to “the master stroke of intervention in the Martin Luther King arrest.”

A precocious start

Harris Llewellyn Wofford Jr., whose father was an insurance executive, was born in New York City on April 9, 1926. He grew up mostly in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., and was the oldest of three children.

He was 11 when his maternal grandmother took him on a life-altering six-month world tour.

In Rome, he said, he saw dictator Benito Mussolini “thundering” from a balcony against the League of Nations. In Shanghai, he and his grandmother walked through the rubble from the Japanese attack and occupation. In the streets of Mumbai, he said, he saw Mohandas Gandhi.

He later told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he returned to seventh grade as a “know-it-all foreign policy expert.” His fascination with activism was ignited. Within a few years, he had organized the first chapter of the Student Federalists, which later merged with other groups to form what is now Citizens for Global Solutions.

Mr. Wofford served stateside in the Army Air Forces, then graduated from the University of Chicago in 1948. That year, he married fellow student Clare Lindgren and traveled with her throughout India and Pakistan on a fellowship to study the work of Gandhi, who had just been assassinated.

Studying civil disobedience in India spurred Mr. Wofford to enroll at Howard, which he described in his 1980 memoir, “Of Kennedys and Kings,” as “the center of the civil rights law I intended to practice.” He earned law degrees from Howard and Yale University, both in 1954.

Five years later, Mr. Wofford helped arrange and underwrite a month-long tour of India for Martin and Coretta King to meet many of Gandhi’s disciples. The trip widened King’s vision and gave him “a more sophisticated view of how social injustice and evil could be combated by the method of nonviolence,” historian David J. Garrow wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, “Bearing the Cross.”

Mr. Wofford was arrested for protesting police brutality during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and spent a night in jail. He later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he became disillusioned with the radical youths leading the protests.

“One of the common threads all my life,” he said, “has been a disagreement with those who see politics as primarily focused on their own psychic or ideological satisfaction, those people that want to vote or to protest or be witnesses [without being interested] in the art of persuasion or what the results will be. The protest movement of the late 1960s ended by appalling me.”

From 1966 to 1970, Mr. Wofford served as president of an experimental branch of the State University of New York at Old Westbury on Long Island. He spent the next eight years leading Bryn Mawr as the second male president since the women’s college was founded in 1885.

In 1991, he was Pennsylvania’s secretary of labor and industry when Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. (D), an early political mentor, appointed him to fill the vacancy created by the death of Sen. John Heinz (R) in a plane crash. Promising balm for the frustrations of the middle class — including a proposal for national health-care reform — Mr. Wofford then defeated Thornburgh with 55 percent of the vote.

Three years later, the discursive former college president lost his seat to Rep. Rick Santorum, the hard-charging conservative who helped the GOP take control of the Senate. After leaving office, Mr. Wofford served six years as chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that administers the AmeriCorps program and was one of his chief legislative achievements as senator.

Clare Wofford died in 1996. In addition to Mr. Wofford’s husband, of Washington, survivors include three children, Susanne Wofford of Manhattan, Daniel Wofford of Bryn Mawr, Pa., and David Wofford of Washington; a brother; a sister; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Wofford met Charlton on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Quoting a Robert Frost poem about love at first sight, he wrote in his New York Times essay: “Twice in my life, I’ve felt the pull of such passionate preference. At age 90, I am lucky to be in an era where the Supreme Court has strengthened what President Obama calls ‘the dignity of marriage’ by recognizing that matrimony is not based on anyone’s sexual nature, choices or dreams. It is based on love.”

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