A former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who didn’t serve in that role long – but will be remembered for fighting for civil rights since the segregation era, and in LGBTQ circles for his same-sex marriage – has died.
Harris Wofford spent 1991 to 1995 in the Senate, but had a remarkable history of civil rights accomplishments before. He is thought by some to have helped elect two presidents, served as president of the women’s Bryn Mawr College for most of the 1970s, and then late in life as a widower, he married his male partner.
The Washington Post’s obituary headline called Wofford a “civil rights activist who helped Kennedy win the White House.”
Wofford died Jan. 21 at a Washington hospital from complications after a fall. He was 92.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued this statement: “Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world have lost a true visionary with the death of Harris Wofford. He was an inspiration to me and to many others in public service today, fighting for the rights of those less fortunate in every chapter of his storied career, from teenaged activist to U.S. Senator. While we mourn his loss, we find it fitting that a man who fought for civil rights – and who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – passed away on the day we honor King’s legacy. Rest in peace, Senator. You have truly left the world a better place.”
Harris Wofford was born in New York on April 9, 1926. He grew up in the wealthy Westchester suburb of Scarsdale.
His first big historic moments in life happened when he was 11, and accompanied his widowed grandmother on a six-month world tour. They spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, visited Shanghai after the Japanese conquered it, saw India where he became “fascinated” by Mahatma Gandhi, and happened to be in Rome to see Benito Mussolini announce Italy's withdrawal from the League of Nations and hold a fascist parade.
After college, Wofford enrolled at historically black Howard Law School. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, that made him “the first white student to do so since the suffragist movement of the early 1900s. While at Howard, Wofford toured Alabama doing research on the status of civil rights in the South.”
Then, like many, Wofford first heard of MLK during the Montgomery bus boycott and taught nonviolent tactics against segregation he learned from methods used by Gandhi. Stanford’s biography of Wofford says, “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.’”
Wofford joined John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The 1960 election against Vice President Richard Nixon was close, but Wofford had managed a meeting between King and Kennedy over the summer.
Then, in October, King was arrested at a student sit-in protesting segregation. The Washington Post reported the real trouble started when the judge learned what had happened a few months earlier.
King was driving his wife, Coretta Scott King, and a white friend to the hospital in a neighboring county and got “pulled over by a police officer suspicious of the interracial group of travelers.” He was found guilty of driving with an out-of-state-license. Mrs. King was terrified he’d be killed in jail “was hysterical” by the time she reached Wofford.
Wofford decided to suggest Kennedy call Mrs. King to offer support, and it worked. Nixon did nothing, Bobby Kennedy called the judge and got King freed the next day, Southern white voters were not alienated, and JFK won both the black vote and the tight election.
As special assistant to President Kennedy, Wofford worked with Sargent Shriver and “was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps,” according to the group. The Peace Corps has been giving out the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award “to an outstanding global leader who grew up and continues to live in a country where Peace Corps Volunteers serve and whose life was influenced by the Peace Corps” every year since 2011.
Wofford became the second male president of Bryn Mawr College in 1970, which apparently brought him to our area, and held the title for eight years. Then, he returned to politics as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor and Industry, appointed by Gov. Bob Casey.
Four years later, on April 4, 1991, U.S. Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and six other people were killed in a mid-air collision between Heinz's plane and a helicopter dispatched to investigate a problem with its landing gear. The tragedy happened above Merion Elementary School, just outside the city. Two children were among the victims.
Gov. Casey had to appoint a replacement for the open Senate seat until a special, and appointed Wofford on May 8, 1991. Wofford said he’d considered running for office, but never found the right opportunity.
In Washington, he worked with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday and day of service. As Mayor Kenney’s statement mentioned, it’s ironic he died on that holiday.
The special election came just six months later. Wofford and his Republican opponent, Dick Thornburgh, were chosen by the party committees since there was no time for a primary. Thornburgh had been governor and U.S. Attorney General under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Wofford was down by more than 40 points, according to one of his own polls. Somehow he won, and campaigners Paul Begala and James Carville reached the national stage.
Wofford campaigned for universal healthcare, which became a bigger issue a few years later when Begala and Carville helped get Bill Clinton elected.
Just in 2015, Rush Limbaugh complained on the radio: “But health care as a right. You know who started that line of thinking? A guy named Harris Wofford, who was a senator from Pennsylvania. Back in the, I forget, eighties and during one of his reelection campaigns he ran around saying (paraphrasing), ‘If the Constitution provides you a lawyer because you are too destitute or too poor to afford one, well, then, by God, the Constitution will provide you health care if you get sick.’ And of course low-income people all over the country cheered, got rabidly happy over such a premise.”
Unfortunately for Wofford, he was up for reelection during Bill Clinton’s first midterm election in 1994. Those rarely go well for the president’s party and Wofford narrowly lost to Rep. Rick Santorum, 49 percent to 47 percent.
In 2005, he became friends with new Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. In fact, Wofford introduced Obama before the future president gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech in the midst of his Democratic primary campaign. It was on March 18, 2008, here at the National Constitution Center. Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright was in the news for controversial sermons about terrorist attacks on the United States and government dishonesty. Obama denounced Wright's remarks, and tried to place them in an historical and sociological context. He also spoke about racial tensions, white privilege and racial inequality, plus black “anger” and white “resentment,” and a plea to move beyond America's “racial stalemate.”
The Pew Research Center called the speech “arguably the biggest political event of the campaign so far” and after winning the presidency, The New Yorker decided the speech helped elect Obama.
In 2014, The New Republic featured Wofford in its 100th Anniversary issue. The profile was called “The Man Who Was Everywhere,” but there was something nobody seemed to know at the time.
It wasn’t until late April, 2016, that PGN reported:
“A former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania announced this past weekend that, at age 90, he is getting re-married – this time to a man.
“In an op-ed in The New York Times, April 24, Harris Wofford announced he was marrying his partner of 15 years, Matthew Charlton, next week. Wofford's wife, with whom he had three children, died in 1996.
“Wofford stopped short of ‘coming out’ as gay or bisexual.
“‘I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love,’ he wrote. ‘I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness.’”
Now, Wikipedia lists Wofford as just one of three senators, and the only man, in its section, “List of LGBT members of the United States Congress.” The others are Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), who has served since 2013, and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), elected in November and started serving last month.
He leaves behind a daughter, two sons, six grandchildren and – of course – his husband and one amazing legacy.