Harris Wofford: Our Final Interview

In Memoriam
One person can make a difference in the world, and Harris was such a person. Harris Wofford (1926-2019)

Harris Wofford was advisor to President John Kennedy

Harris Wofford was already a national organizer when most teenagers were focused on their first dates. Born into a prominent Southern family and raised in Scarsdale, New York, his upbringing exposed him to some unusual experiences. In 1936, at age 10, he accompanied his grandmother on a six-month world tour where they witnessed Benito Mussolini announce his withdrawal from the League of Nations, toured Shanghai after the Japanese bombing, and visited India where he became captivated by Mahatma Gandhi. All of which shaped and motivated him in high school to start the Student Federalists, a national organization aimed at creating a new world government, which garnered national media attention.

He served in the US Army Air Corps during WWII and later became the first white male to attend historically black Howard Law School. His idealism and expansive vision steered him down a path of public service, where he spearheaded social causes and became involved in politics. He worked on the Civil Rights movement and marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma. He was a presidential advisor to John F. Kennedy, helped form the Peace Corps, and became a Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania where he was instrumental in establishing King’s birthday as a national holiday. After politics, Wofford served as president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury and later Bryn Mawr. He eventually returned to public service as the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.

Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, Harris passed away on Martin Luther King day— January 21, 2019. His relationship with ABILITY Magazine reaches back several decades. In 1997, he invited ABILITY’s Chet Cooper to speak at the annual AmeriCorps Conference to emphasize outreaching to volunteers with disabilities. As a result, AmeriCorps began to include language and outreach efforts to bring those with disabilities into the fold. In Selma, they participated in a 20-house Habitat for Humanity blitz build and later shared a memorable car ride over the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, with Cooper sandwiched between Harris and Millard Fuller, the found of Habitat for Humanity.

In 2015, Cooper and ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan invited Wofford to lunch at a café in DC, where he reminisced about his childhood travels, discussed his commitment to ensure service opportunities for all Americans, and shared stories about Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and his pivotal role in the 1961 Presidential election. The interview was waiting for the release of his memoir.

Chet Cooper: I heard the working title of your memoir is called Slightly Mad.

Harris Wofford: The working title comes from a comment made by Robert Kennedy. When Robert Kennedy’s oral history was made public by the great New York Times columnist— Anthony “Tony” Lewis— he asked Kennedy, “Why did you pick Harris Wofford for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights?” Kennedy said, “Well, I know that most civil rights people assume that because he was selected on civil rights in the campaign and they were assuming it, but he was very emotionally committed to the civil rights campaign and to Martin Luther King, and I didn’t think it would be wise to have somebody who was so emotionally committed. Congress might think I was getting the wrong advice.” They kept pressing him on it. Parentheses: It would have been a mistake if he had picked me, because he would never have really had the confidence, in my judgment, as he did in the person he took. He asked— and I forget his name right now— an outstanding, wise person who helped Robert Kennedy move upward on his approach to civil rights. What he did turned out to be a tremendously good choice. But Tony just kept pressing him. Kennedy said, “Harris probably couldn’t be confirmed because he was so connected to King in the public eye, the call to Mrs. King and things like that.”

Tony Lewis said, “Yes, he would have. The Senator, whatever his name was from Mississippi, was appointing anybody you sent up during those months.” And finally Robert Kennedy said, “Tony, he’s fine, he’s done wonderful things with the Peace Corps, but you have to admit that Harris, in some areas, is a slight madman.” And then it goes back to when I first met Robert Kennedy. Mutual friends said, “You’re the same age, same interests, Robert’s probably going to be very involved in the campaign for Jack Kennedy.” He may have known that I was already inclined toward Kennedy because of his great civil rights speeches in 1957, but I was leaving on a trip with Chester Bowles to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Poland and Yugoslavia for three months, and I was helping him write a column each week for either Look or Newsweek. “And he might have some tips for where you’re going. Robert Kennedy’s just come back from going on the trip as assistant to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas,” one of the great progressives on the Supreme Court, who every summer went to some other part of the world.

When I went to see Robert Kennedy, he looked at my résumé, which that isn’t, although I’m having a counter-résumé that I’ve long ago written, because I’ve teased people that it would be much more interesting if it were my failures rather than my successes. Failure is more interesting than success. No one ever introducing someone for a talk says, “He was beaten.” They don’t say anything about why I’m not still a senator, let alone never saying that Rick Santorum beat me, which was a very live issue. He did run for President a little later. If he hadn’t beaten me, he wouldn’t have been in the picture.

It was 1957 and Robert Kennedy began by saying, “I understand you’re going to Howard Law School as a teacher, but this suggests that you went there as a student.” I said, “Yeah, I was the first white student to graduate from the law school. A number of white people graduated from other parts of the university, especially the medical school.” He shook his head and said, “I can’t see why in the world you’d go as a student rather than— it’s all right to go and teach them, but to go and be a student there just doesn’t make sense, does it?” I was going to start my fellowship on the trail of Gandhi and looking at America drew me to think that civil rights was the great moral issue in our politics and our reputation. I thought it’d be good to go to a place that was the center of civil rights litigation.

I can still vividly remember that Robert Kennedy just couldn’t understand that. By the time he was killed, I think he was more emotionally committed to ending racial discrimination and ending poverty than I was. He was a public figure, but in politics, no one was as committed as Robert Kennedy, in my opinion. When I supported Obama, before he announced his run for the presidency, I went up to him on the Senate floor and said, “It’s time for me to tell you that I’ve been waiting a long time for a presidential candidate who I felt we needed as much as I felt we needed Robert Kennedy in 1968. I think I’ve found him. Don’t wait too long, Barack.”

Back in high school we started our little crusade for the union of democracy to win the war and be a nucleus of a World Federation after the war. People called me a Don Quixote. My university president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, last words to the University of Chicago class that I was in, said “In this world, you’ll perhaps many times be faced with choosing whether you’re a Don Quixote or a Sancho Panza,” the one on the mule. “I hope in most cases you will choose to be Don Quixote because our purpose in this world is to change it, and if in doing so we become slightly mad, if you fail to get to your goal, so much the worse for the world.” That’s why I’m sticking to the slightly mad.


Cooper: Keep it. You’re referencing what people have said, so for the political incorrectness of the word, you may get some pushback, but because you are referencing other people’s commentary on you being a little mad, I think you’re good. And the pushback for those people who may be frustrated by the description, maybe you’ll put an asterisk somewhere saying, “Frustrated with the word ‘mad’? Call me.”

Wofford: (laughs) Mad like Chet.

Cooper: So you started a group in high school to create a better civilization that included human rights?

Wofford: Before high school, at age 10, in 1936, in a Republican family and the very then Republican town of Scarsdale, New York, I declared for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and at age 10 campaigned for him by distributing literature. By age 10, I knew that the game that interested me the most was politics. So I began rather early. Slightly mad. [laughter] While others were choosing basketball, baseball, football, track, my game by then was already politics. When I was 14, I went down by myself to the inauguration of Roosevelt in 1940 and the Republican Congressman said to me, “In all my years here, there hasn’t ever been anyone from Scarsdale to come in and want tickets or help in getting to the inauguration.” So, yes, I started early.

Both Time and Newsweek did big features on the organization we started in Scarsdale High School called Student Federalists. There was a book call Union Now that was a bestseller by Clarence K. Streit, who was the New York Times correspondent in Geneva for the League of Nations and who quit the job, believing Hitler was going to conquer Europe. This is a year and a half before the war began in ’39. He came back and wrote this book, that democracy had to form a union, and it should be a union after they’d stopped Hitler and won the war, that would be the nucleus for a world federation with power to keep the peace.

Clare Boothe Luce, her husband Henry Luce and Time magazine, and Gardner Cowles, the famous publisher of Look magazine, were passionate believers in a federation of the world that had the power to control and, in nation-states, to end mass destruction of power. Student Federalists, Time magazine’s feature right after I’d by then gone into the Army Air Corps at age 18, in the last two years of the war, I was—

I’ve left out a crucial part of little me. [laughter] The little me at 12 was asked by my grandmother, “Would you be interested in going around the world with me for six months?” She had discovered an enterprise called Tramp Trips. This was in 1937-38. It continued during the war. It offered very low-cost trips. In the first place, at 11, when the tickets were bought, it was half-fare for me. But for my grandmother and older people, Tramp Trips got very low-cost passages on ocean liners that, during the Depression, weren’t filled up and also on freighters, about half of the 13 ships we were on were freighters. Aside from that, the second chapter is the story of the six months around the world on the eve of war with my grandmother.

On this trip, I heard Churchill thunder his warning about Hitler. In Italy, our hotel was a block away from Mussolini’s palace, and we learned that he was giving his major address to Italy and the world that night. I got a hotel concierge, an agent of the hotel, to go out into the 100,000 or more people in the square to hear Mussolini speak from the balcony and take Italy out of the League of Nations, declare the Second Roman Empire, celebrate the complete victory over Haile Selassie, and the conquest of Ethiopia, which the League of Nations had condemned. I saw Gandhi in the streets of Bombay. We went to Shanghai several months after the Japanese had finished the conquest of that part of China and the rape of Nanking had occurred. But Shanghai, the latest bombardment until the atomic bomb and the fire-bombing that we did in the war of Hamburg and others, there wasn’t a roof that was still standing in what they called a Chinese city, nor were any human beings living there anymore, because the Japanese controlled it, so looting permits to tourists. It was quite a tourist attraction. I looted Shanghai.

You paid five dollars and a vehicle took us on Sundays into the Chinese city and they picked the place—a rich man’s home or a teahouse, which is what we got. My grandmother was lame and couldn’t go in, but I came out with a four-foot stuffed ostrich that I had to carry around for a while.

Cooper: Good choice!

Wofford: [laughter] While others came out with china and art. But I came home in ’38 an ardent interventionist for getting into the war. Isolationists were carrying the day. Polls were about 50-50 as to whether we should be aiding the Allies or not. There was another group that formed called the Fight for Freedom Committee to get us into the war, and I was active in it when I was in seventh and ninth grade. You didn’t know I was a militarist. In any case, that’s the background.

I was listening to Mr. District Attorney in the bathtub. It was a famous, top-rated radio show that teenagers and people of all ages listened to for some years. Most people I knew listened to Mr. District Attorney once a week. It had just ended when I stepped into the bathtub. The radio was not within reach, so I forgot what was on the radio, and the next thing I knew, Clare Boothe Luce was mesmerizing me with this talk for why the democracies should form a federal union.

Long story short, thereafter, I finally got commissioned and started a chapter of the movement for a union of democracies. We started in Scarsdale. It became a national debate topic, “Resolved: A union of democracies should be established to help win the war and be the nucleus of a world union with power to keep the peace after the war.”

They listed us as a “pro source” [laughter], and we were in the basement of our home in Scarsdale, where we had a mimeograph machine. My father’s office in New York was getting rid of it, and he gave it to us. We had a little magazine.

Cooper: How old were you?

Wofford: This was when I was just turning 16. And we got hundreds and hundreds of requests for a debate packet for the pro side. One came from the woman I pursued thereafter and who became the third national president of the Student Federalists, Clare Lindgren. She became my wife for 50 years until acute leukemia defeated her. It was a time that every American I knew was full of confidence we were going to win the war. I don’t think I ever met anyone who thought we would lose the war once Pearl Harbor came.

You could say that was sort of crazy, because it was only England sitting there with limited resources that was holding Hitler from having conquered all of Europe and that hemisphere. In any case, the debate topic was before the atomic bomb. Or am I right on that? I’d have to check, but they overlapped pretty fast. The first wave of growing national service was with that kind of help. The second wave was the atomic bomb, and then most major campuses had sprang up with organizations for a world government of some kind. The Yale League for World Government had 500 members, most of them veterans. The Wellesley Committee for World Federation had 1,000 students out of 2,000 altogether. All the major campuses had units of Student Federalists.

The larger movement involved the atomic scientists and a huge group of Hollywood movie stars. Plenty of people in both houses of Congress were beggaring a United Nations that actually had the power to control weapons. The San Francisco conference, which I got leave from the Air Corps to attend and observe for a while, came out with the veto power of the Security Council. It was more like the Articles of Confederation of the United States than the union of the United States. My first decade in the political world was my passionate involvement in pursuing that idea.

Cooper: You went to study Gandhi?

Wofford: I got a fellowship after I graduated from the University of Chicago to go to India. Originally it was two years in India and China, but by the time we were shaping it, it was one year to India to go on the trail of Gandhi. He had been killed, unfortunately, not when the idea came to go on the trail of Gandhi. He was moving toward being killed, but by the time we got there, he had been assassinated almost a year before. My wife and I wrote a book together called India Afire about our time in India. I came back advocating strongly for Gandhi and civil disobedience and the whole Gandhian Swaraj—the three dimensions of democracy that Gandhi advocated and tried to get Indians to undertake. Some people call it the spade, the prison, and the vote. Gandhi would have called it constructive service, civil disobedience, and election and laws.

The religious aspects of nonviolence aside, his basic thesis and political passion was for India to show what the Western democracies were lacking, that democracy should have three dimensions. Gandhi demonstrated this in his first encounter with the Indian National Congress. When he came back from South Africa, he took a year’s silence in terms of politics and once a week total silence, while he learned about India again. He’d been in South Africa for 20 years. He went to the National Independence Movement of several thousand people who had assembled and found they were paralyzed because the untouchables, who did the most menial work, had walked off because of a pay dispute. This left several thousand people without any latrines, which stunk and were piled up. Gandhi said, “Give me some brooms and we will clean the latrines.” That’s the epitome of what the caste structure said the untouchables must do. He went in and cleaned the latrines. Many of the high-caste Hindus were shocked and appalled that he had done it.

They were saying, “You should have left something for government to do when we get independence.” And Gandhi said, “Why wait for independence for the necessary drain-cleaning?” It’s interesting to note that when Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India, visited America, Obama took him down to the Martin Luther King memorial. But Modi already had a plan upon his return to India, based on one of Gandhi’s examples, that the people of India in villages and towns could see the mounting crisis of trash and garbage in India, and that Gandhi had said that we can do it ourselves and not have to wait until we have a government. Interestingly, the morning after Modi returned from the US, the press tied it to visiting the Martin Luther King memorial with Obama. In any case, symbolically, those are the brooms that Gandhi used to clean the latrines, and Modi has a massive national strategy to get people everywhere in India to take responsibility for sanitation in the villages.

Cooper: What got you involved in promoting volunteerism?

Wofford: I was on the former troop ship converted to a student ship.

Harris Wofford and Lia Martirosyan

Lia Martirosyan: What year?

Wofford: It was 1947. The New York Herald Tribune was a big supporter of Student Federalists. For their big annual New York Herald Tribune forum, while I was in the Army Air Corps, they had me and Shirley Temple as their keynoters for all these foreign policy experts. [laughter] She became an ambassador, as you may know, to Czechoslovakia and to Ghana, but I didn’t see her after that occasion, although the publisher, Helen Reid, wrote a note saying that my pitch represented everything she believed in and she said, “I wish I had as much confidence about Shirley as I do that you’re going to do great things. I think it would be a great thing for Shirley if she had more time with me. I want to urge you to continue your relationship.” It was clearly matchmaking. I hadn’t the slightest interest in Shirley Temple or she in me.

Cooper: But she was only six years old! [laughter]

Wofford: She is almost my age. I’ve joked about this for some years. But on the trip, there was a group of about 20 men. They kept well-dressed, with ties and things like that. The rest of us students were raunchier. But they sang beautifully, just beautifully, and too late at night. They were keeping us awake the entire first night singing. The next morning I cornered one. “What are you up to?” He said, “We’re Mormons, and when a Mormon becomes of age, at 18, the question is not, will I do service—a Mormon’s mission is to help people, and we decided we wanted to go to Europe, devastated Europe, to try to be of help.” I remember saying to Clare, who became my wife, “That’s what really should be offered to every young American.” And, interestingly, I’d say it’s been the central idea I’ve been involved with since I last saw you, but particularly over the last several years, which is that a higher education should include a year of service either here or abroad. Just as high school became a cause initially in the 19th century to Horace Mann and people said, “This is absurd. You’ll never get funding for all young people to go beyond sixth grade. It’s not in the cards. You’re crazy.” And he started this crusade for what later got called high school. At the turn of the century, it was still only 15 percent, or something like that, who went beyond sixth grade in this country.

But then community by community and state by state, with hardly any money from the federal government, the idea of high school spread. We, quite a growing group, are trying to broaden the definition of higher education to include a year of service, and the many choices to choose from, but the means should be found to make it possible. They’re not going to be found by hoping that the House of Representatives is going to change. On this, I don’t see a fundamental change is going to come in the House, which controls the money.

This is something that would have to be picked up by colleges and universities, by mayors an corporations, foundations, faith-based organizations, and others. It should be part of our definition of higher education, which, it seems to me, must include the world you’re writing about and thinking about and trying to open doors for. I don’t know to what extent you’re with AmeriCorps or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or the Peace Corps or any of the national service programs. I don’t know to what extent they have a year of service or more as part of their being.

Cooper: For what we’ve done, I think you remember we were building the ABILITY House.

Wofford: I remember so much.

Cooper: We’ve done more houses. We worked with AmeriCorps, and we obtained a federal grant for three years. But the grant money has been gone for some time.

Wofford: Do you enlist people in one or more of the programs?

Cooper: Yes, for us to build more ABILITY Houses, we access volunteers with disabilities and we typically work with Habitat for Humanity because they’re involvement with AmeriCorps.

Wofford: The organization that’s most pushing this particular idea is called the Franklin Project of the Aspen Institute. General McChrystal heads that organization. I’m a senior advisor. It’s a fascinating job. I’m senior advisor of four organizations now. Two of them actually pay me something, but not the Franklin Project. This version of it began with General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral Michael Mullen, who took the idea from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual event put on by the Aspen Institute. They took it by storm with their pitch that we believe, and most military people we know believe, that civilian service to the community is something that everyone should participate in. Full-time service has a tremendous power that part-time service, while doing many good things, doesn’t have the same impact, both on what you’re working for and on yourself, whether it’s through the Peace Corps or the military. It should be at least as large as the military. We need a million young people every year, roughly, in the military. We think there ought to be at least a million positions where full-time service will be supported as an option for young people.

But the project is not trying to build a new organization that will run a lot of things. It will be a new institution, a technical center that uses modern technology to be able to, for example, cover the range of options at home or abroad and do things like getting participant assessment of the programs that people are considering and help raise the money, whether it’s through crowd-sourcing or other options.

Tufts University has been out in front of higher education by creating a new track that they celebrated with General McChrystal and others. I have a grandson who’s at Tufts and he didn’t know about it until afterwards, but this coming year, 2015, another track will be available to enter Tufts on a one-plus-four program. The one is, before coming to Tufts, you do a year of full-time service somewhere, either something Tufts itself sponsors, with a whole range of different options, and more that need to be existing. Tulane University is about to announce the other step, four-plus-one, four years in college and then a year of service as part of the program you get admitted to, and they would find the ways and means to support you.

Cooper: Lia’s going to announce a two-plus-one-plus-two program.

Wofford: (laughs) I’m one who believes in the middle. I had several years, thanks to World War II, after high school, before going to college, and then we had the fellowship to India and basically took a year to write the book and other things, so I had two years before I went to law school. My three children knew that I thought it was very helpful to have breaks from classroom education to education in action as an educational principle, as one that for many people would be very helpful. I think all kinds of variety would work. If we should get this to stick, to be contagious and large, it would open up new opportunities and new pressures, including the ability-disability world as a big factor.

It isn’t that everyone in that category would want or be ready for 10 months or a service year similar in length to an academic year, but I would suggest that would benefit most.

Cooper: Absolutely. There are organizations that exist already in higher education connecting students with disabilities in colleges and universities.

Wofford: Are you doing that now?

Cooper: There are already established systems, nothing like what you’ve described, but we’ve been trying to infiltrate some of those groups to explain to them that they should be out there getting internships and finding mentors to further their chances for employment when they leave school. But doing what you’re saying, when we build the ABILITY Corps completely, our message is, it’ll help them round out their lives and also help them find employment, because they will have more on their résumé and more experience than someone who doesn’t have that. I think we have the same mindsets.

Wofford: Are you meeting people and doing interviews?

Cooper: We created abilityJOBS, which is the largest website for employment of people with disabilities, which we started in 1995. Plus we’ve been working on an online career fair, that allows recruiters to interview job seekers via video face to face. And it includes ASL if a job seeker is deaf.

Wofford: Wonderful. Have you been to India?

Martirosyan: No, but I’d like to go.

Cooper: The closest we’ve been to India is the restaurant we are taking you.

Wofford: That’s the way with most people in Ethiopia. There’s a good Ethiopian restaurant two or three stores next to where you’re going. It’s great seeing you again. What about Andy?

Cooper: Andy Houghton, last I heard was working with his wife Jill Houghton. She is running the U.S. Business Leadership Network. It used to be the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. When Bush closed it, they put in place businesses talking to businesses, and they called it the USBLN.

Wofford: Andy was part of that national one, wasn’t he?

Cooper: After leaving ABILITY Magazine, he worked with Javits-Wagner-O’Day, and they later changed their name to AbilityOne.

Wofford: Well, thank you for my supper. Let’s go back to my home.

Cooper: I was expecting it to be cluttered. I remember the last time there were papers everywhere.

Wofford: It’s a very happy procrastination.

Cooper: When do you think this will be done?

Wofford: By next summer. I’m working on it right now.

Martirosyan: Somebody’s helping you write it? Do you have an editor, or are you doing it all by yourself?

Wofford: No one has ever helped me write. My wife was the best editor, the brightest one I ever had, the sharpest one.

Cooper: So you have to get married again.

Wofford: That’s what I don’t want. But I have a really great friend who’s been a year with me. He’s a non-political type. He’s a designer.

Cooper: But is he a good editor?

Wofford: A very skilled snowboarder.

Cooper: We need an editor!

Wofford: He’s a fairly good editor, not very. His passion is the outdoors. He rafts down dangerous rivers and thank God just once he jumped from an airplane down in Florida. I used to love downhill skiing, but balance and other things. He took me skiing in Taos. They have a very steep mountain for skiing, and they insisted on my going down a more advanced track than the green for very intermediate, inadequate skiers. I used to love downhill skiing with big tracks at Snowmass at Aspen. In any case, the whole top of it is a non-track. They had a fire half a century ago and decided to keep it all open. Not only is the view spectacular, but you can go as fast or as slow as you want. But once visiting the Rocky Mountain Service Corps in Taos, this wonderful group took me beyond my abilities, and after I had had a seminar on swaraj and Gandhi’s three dimensions of politics, which I already mentioned. One is constructive service, the other is prison. How do you say no? For Gandhi, you say no in all kinds of ways. To march is one way, but a very powerful way is civil disobedience against what you’re saying no to, whether it’s the British Empire or a professional issue or other things.

The spade, the prison, and the vote, which is politics. He called on the Indian National Independent movement as they began independence to not become a party but to become a service corps, and he then had 14-point constructive service, literacy for all, that is, those who are literate teaching others so everyone knows how to read. You go down it, ending untouchability and having sanitation in the villages. He was constantly inventing a new institution to try to solve a problem. So social intervention and constructive service are dimensions that ought to be seen as part of what self-government is.

Similarly, the ability to say not only, “Yes, we’re going to do this,” but “No, we’re going to stop this.” And lastly, the vote and politics, winning elections for programs that solve the problems. And he felt that Western democracies were focused on getting political power and having people vote freely to elect that political power, but neglecting the other dimensions of self-government that are not part of the government. So a fair amount of that is in the book for those young Mormons today. Bill Moyers, who did the introduction to my Of Kennedys and Kings, said, “This time it has to be what makes you tick. You wrote a book on what made Kennedy a king and politics work or not work in the ’60s. It was making sense of the ’60s. This time it has to be about what makes you tick.” That’s the harder part.

Cooper: It’s really good that you had him do that.

Wofford: That is in the prologue. I’m writing the epilogue at the same time. When I finished the prologue, I said, “I really should be writing the epilogue, too. It might change tremendously, but where are you heading? How will you end it?” So I’ve got a prologue I like, and I haven’t quite completed the epilogue that I like. But there’s a few things in between that you may have noticed. I’m very happy to get the new ammunition with your publication. Your layouts and the covers are always good.

Cooper: Thank you. For those that haven’t read the book. Can you explain or describe in 50 words or less the circumstances with your call to Martin Luther King’s wife?

Wofford: The call to Mrs. King? For the book, I decided to put it first rather than in chronological order, because it’s the only case where I have a little footnote to history. Martin Luther King was the chairman of the Montgomery bus boycott. That pitched him into the whole struggle of civil rights as a major leader and put him on the national stage. During the Montgomery bus boycott, which he did because Rosa Parks, a seamstress but an active NAACP campaigner, was ordered to give up her seat, and she said no to a white man. The bus driver said, “If you don’t, I’m calling the police and you’ll be in jail,” and she said, “Then just do it.”

She was arrested, and it led to 50,000 negroes in Montgomery finding ways to get to work other than riding the buses. Many of them were walking. It caught the imagination of the country, and the Supreme Court, you might say, because in the end the court ruled that interstate transportation was a public function and could not have discrimination. But King rose to a major role in our politics.

Now fast-forward. King joined a sit-in by a very bold group of young people in Atlanta, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They insisted on doing the sit-in even though King felt it was unwise to do it during an election. It would be far better not to try to bring about a very critical matter in the middle of the campaign where people, one way or the other, would be dealing with it politically. But they decided they were going to do it anyway, and King joined them and went to jail.

He had been arrested some months before and put on probation, a savage charge, namely, because he was on probation from a judgment by a county judge for driving with an out-of-state driver’s license. He had changed licenses from moving from Alabama to Georgia. He was sentenced to five months on this chain gang, forced labor.
Cooper: That sounds fair.

Wofford: (laughs) He then got arrested, and that county judge, after the students and the mayor of Atlanta had released all of them, seized King and reduced the sentence from five months to four months, King is in the county jail and then moved to the state penitentiary under this judge’s control. He was going to do hard labor for four months. Mrs. King called me. I was deputy to Sargent Shriver, and we had organized the civil rights section of the Kennedy presidential campaign, not just the Negro vote section, but civil rights policy, with major Jewish leaders, the UAW, and a major leader, G. Mennen Williams of Michigan who was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. It was all of those things. Martin Luther King called, having gotten to know me fairly well. Jokingly, he said, [I was] the only one of his volunteer lawyers who would help him go to jail instead of using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out.

In any case, I had a good friendship with Mrs. King, and she called me in panic and even a kind of hysteria. I knew she thought that at the end of the road he had chosen he would be killed. It was a nightmare she had had. She met my wife and talked to my wife about that nightmare, and she called me to say, “Is there anything you can do?” My African American colleague and I were commiserating about what could we do that would move the needle toward King getting out of jail and also be good for John Kennedy and for King.

I said, “You know, if these passionate, beautiful Kennedys would show it by Jack Kennedy calling Coretta and saying that he heard about King’s unconscionable sentence and the fact that she was six months pregnant, and he just wanted her to know that he was with her and we were doing what we can— just a short phone conversation. I tried to get through to the campaign to do it the appropriate way, but, unfortunately, they didn’t take my call, for some amusing reasons. I called Sarg Shriver, builder of the Peace Corps and charged with a number of the campaign units, including the civil rights section, and he loved the idea immediately. He said, “Hope I don’t get arrested,” and zoomed out to O’Hare Airport.

When he caught up with Kennedy, who was about to board the plane to go to some other campaign stop, Shriver looked around and said, “If his staff is there when I propose this idea, it’ll never happen, so he waited, and finally Pierre Salinger went off to the press and they were alone, and he said just what I said about the idea of calling Mrs. King. Shriver says Kennedy thought for 30 seconds or so and said, “That’s a very good idea. Do you have her number?” He called her, and it turned out to have a tremendous impact, first on Daddy King, the father, who was a Nixon supporter. The list, included Daddy King, who was for Nixon saying, “You can’t— as Baptists we don’t want a Roman Catholic to become President of the U.S.”

Daddy King went public— all of these points have other stories attached— and King was released. Daddy King went public without anyone clearing it, but it was perfectly good from my point of view. He said, “If he can have the courage as a Baptist [sic], Kennedy, to wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law’s eyes, I have the courage to get rid of my Nixon button and carry all my vote for President up to Senator Kennedy and put them in his lap. I have the courage to vote for a Catholic for President, and I’m for Jack Kennedy.” And all kinds of things are longer than this that in the end had most of the observers of the campaign, including Theodore White’s first major book about this making of a President, which he did with other Presidents afterwards. There are a number of states where the increase of surge related to this. We got out the word of Daddy King and Martin himself when he was released. The head of the black Baptists and others, and for probably most of the black churches, the Sunday before election, it was a little message on their seats in the church. Nixon had no comment on the whole thing. “And comment Nixon versus a candidate with a heart.” It quoted the different people. That surge was given credit for— in the middle of the night it was still so close, 100,000, 120,000 popular vote margin for Kennedy, and there were six states where the surge in the Negro vote was attributed by many people to the call. That’s the way the story is told.

Cooper: But what really happened—

Wofford: The causal chain is worth your knowing. If I had not had the good luck to have fallen for a great follower of Gandhi, an independent leader in India named Ram Manohar Lohia, who was one of the best articulators of Gandhi’s strategy. I had arranged for him to come to the US in 1951 and to tour the Deep South for five weeks. This was paid for by the same foundation that gave us the money to go on the fellowship. The bus boycott was in 1955. By accident, somebody said on the way down to Alabama, where Ram wanted to go, “Why don’t you go to Highlander Folk School and spend the night there on the way to Alabama? I’m sure they’d love to have a talk from Dr. Lohia.” And we did, and he did. He found out that this activist training school for union people and civil rights activists had nothing on Gandhi, on civil disobedience, on violence, on Thoreau, nothing at all. It was very conventional training.

Lohia said, “Our century thought twice, once with Einstein, once with Gandhi. Einstein pointed the way to cracking the physical atom of the universe, for better or worse. Gandhi pointed the way to how you crack the atom of people power, and you have nothing on that.” The head of it said, “I’d like to join your trip. Can I go for the days that you’re traveling in Alabama?” And he did. When he left, Myles Horten, the co-founder of the school, said, “I promise you that we’ll add Gandhi to the curriculum.” And a year or two later, he sent me the curriculum, which included Gandhi in full measure, in very good measure. I was very happy. We had never heard of Rosa Parks. We had no reason to think she would go there, let alone be of influence.

I was advocating Gandhi’s ideas, and I got some people who were enthusiastic for it. Thurgood Marshall, the head of the NAACP’s legal effort, said, “This will undermine everything we’re doing, which is to persuade white Southerners, through the law, that they have to obey something that they think is against their conscience and against their God. And you’re saying that if you have that feeling and conscience you can violate the law if you are peaceful.” It was a very angry letter.

The dean at Howard University, who had gone to India 10 years before to try to get Gandhi to come and help blacks in America, wrote me a sad letter saying, “This is what I dreamed when I came back from India. I’ve tried to move it, but I’m now convinced there is no Gandhi in the American Negro.” And within a few days of getting that letter from Dean William Stuart Nelson, on the front page of the newspaper was a young woman named Rosa Parks who went to jail, and 50,000 Negroes were walking and a preacher named Martin Luther King was leading them.

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So, if by accident, we hadn’t stopped at the Highlander Folk School, we may never have heard of Martin Luther King, except that there was a great speaker with the congregation taking over his father’s one in Atlanta. Without Rosa Parks going to jail, the civil rights man in Montgomery had been trying to get King to take the initiative, and he said, “I will some day, but I’ve got to learn my new congregation and Montgomery.” He said no to all the requests to join in civil rights efforts. So, therefore, the causal chain for that little footnote to history, it helped elect a US President. It also helped Martin Luther King become one of the great political forces alive and maybe even more so in the immediate years after he was killed.

Cooper: Tell me, if I heard this correctly. If you hadn’t brought the Dr. Lohia over to have that discussion, things would maybe gone differently for Martin Luther King?

Wofford: He wouldn’t have been somebody they would have asked to go to the Atlanta jail.

Cooper: So, in a sense, you put him in jail?

Wofford: You’re brilliant! [laughter]

Cooper: You put him in and got him out.

Wofford: You’re quite right. [laughs] You see what a modest guy I am. This is the little booklet that the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee basically printed quite a few thousand copies of. It doesn’t say anything about Rosa Parks. We didn’t even know she existed. This is the diary of that trip. Unknown to me, without any questions asked, the followers of Lohia in India published this hardcover book, and a few years ago when I was there with John Lewis after the election of Obama, this book was still being distributed to Lohia’s friends. So, in general, I say, one person can change things. I know that if you shoot somebody, like a President, whether it’s Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy or John Lennon, one person can make a bad difference. In this case, it was a pretty good one for Martin Luther King.

This is the first time in writing I’ve gone the causal chain beyond who did the call.

Cooper: Do you mind if we include this in an article?

Wofford: No. The only thing is, so many misstated—

Cooper: A couple of times—

Wofford: — minor aspects. I’d want you to check whatever you write.

Cooper: I want to be clear on—

Wofford: — wait until the book comes out and then give a push to the—

Cooper: We’ll do that no matter what. We’ll do that, too. You say “Negro,” “black,” and “African American.” Do you mind using all those?

Wofford: Which do you use now?

Cooper: We use black or African American. We usually don’t say Negro.

Wofford: But when I grew up, the radical thing was forcing people to say “Negro.”

Cooper: Okay.

Wofford: Out of the fact that the bad word was “nigger,” and “Negro” was distinguished. That was the civil rights fight, to use the word “Negro.” National Association for Colored People was the next stage, “colored.” “African American” is the most politically correct, I guess.

Cooper: Do you remember when we were in Selma, and we were in the car together with Millard Fuller?

Wofford: Oh, yeah, the founder of Habitat for Humanity.

Cooper: We were driving over the Freedom Bridge, and you were describing the walk with Martin Luther King, and Millard was sharing his stories of civil rights. When we crossed over the bridge, do you remember the comment I made about the surrounding area?

Wofford: Give it to me?

Cooper: I said, “I was born there.” That was the only thing I could add to the conversation [laughs]

Wofford: I forgot that.

Cooper: It was the only thing I could add to your great history and Millard’s great history.

Wofford: What were your parents doing there?

Cooper: My father was in the Air Force.

Wofford: That’s where I spent my entire Army Air Corps for two years. They were holding us in abeyance as to whether they needed any more pilots or navigators.

Cooper: Which were you?

Harris Wofford Army Air Corps

Wofford: I would have been a navigator, but we never got any training. We were moved after basic training, Mississippi. Biloxi, our unit of about 200. Those who passed basic training had three things. Bombardier, if they need it, you could get it. It wasn’t as complex and as demanding. Navigator was more intellectual and academic and science-oriented. Piloting involved that, but it took more agility and physical coordination and speed. I was not surprised that number one was to be a navigator, number two a pilot and number three a bombardier.

Cooper: My father was a navigator.

Wofford: This was in April ’44, going into May. The pilots and the navigators were sent to Selma to wait. We didn’t know till the atomic bomb that we were not going to be needed. They kept us doing silly things on the base. My big desire to fight Hitler took the form of picking up trash around air field in Selma. Cigarette remains, beer cans and things like that. And then the highest work we ever got assigned was walking wingtips; it was one of the stops for the training of those, but they weren’t based at Selma. The pilots of the AT-6 would stop on their solo tests. They assigned the aviation trainees to walk the wingtips in order to guide them to where their parking spot was, and then to wipe the oil off. And then, until another plane came, you could get in the cockpit and read whatever piece of literature you had. I read more great books sitting in cockpits, and some of my colleagues had less high-faluting literature, not quite as raunchy as you can easily get now.

I think it was a general who was in charge of the field who said, “They should do something useful. Have them build little picket fences around every barrack and every administrative building on this base and whitewash ‘em white.” So we did that for six weeks or so, and then they changed generals or another person took over the base and allegedly his first comment was, “It looks like a goddamn tank trap! What the hell are all these little white picket fences doing all around this army base! Tell ‘em to pick ‘em up!” So we delayed as long as we could; it was a somewhat easy job, picking them up. That was my heroic work in the Army Air Corps, wanting to fight Hitler.

So not until the atomic bomb did they concede that the war would be over very shortly. And then the point system came out. That was rather discouraging, because the first version of it was logical, namely, those who were in battle oversees should be the first to leave Europe. And then the second to leave would be people who served oversees but didn’t fight— they were support people. And then it goes down. The person with the fewest points to deserve getting out were the aviation trainees who had done nothing. They were at the bottom.

Cooper: But the picket fences!

Wofford: (laughs) The estimation was, it might be about two-and-a-half years before they could get around to discharging you. This ardent interventionist, somewhere in my records in the army, I suspect they have this information. I was running for the Senate, and my wife and I were worried that somebody would leak it, that I helped organize the families of aviation trainees to write Congress to say, “It’s wasting government money. You should release these aviation trainees who are doing nothing and getting paid. The logic should be broken, and the people you know you’re not going to need should be released.” The war ended in August and by November we were given honorable discharges. That was my heroic role in World War II.

Martirosyan: [laughs] White picket fences!

Wofford: In Selma, Alabama. White fences! [sings] “Don’t fence me in. Just unstraddle my old saddle to meet the Western sky. Da-da-da till the West commences, but don’t fence me in.” You may be able to tell that my carrying a tune is inadequate. The first morning after we were married and on our honeymoon, suddenly, while I’m taking this wonderful long shower, my wife said, “You’ve been in there long enough. Cut it out and get out of the shower,” or something like that. And I said, “There’s nothing I love more than long, hot showers when I wake up. Long hot ones with a half minute of cold.” And she said, “But steam is getting all my clothes wet. You’ve had enough.” And finally she stopped pushing me on getting out, but I probably got out fairly soon thereafter. I was still resisting it. But before that she said, “Well, at least stop that damn off-key singing!” [laughter] I had never thought about it, but I just automatically, in the shower, would sing patriotic or folks songs or “We shall overcome.”

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Book: Of Kennedys to Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties
Of Kennedys to Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties —


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