Obituary: Harris Wofford, US Senator, civil rights activist, John F Kennedy aide and author

Harris Wofford, civil rights activist and US senator. Born: 9 April, 1926 in New York City. Died: 21 January, 2019 in Washington, aged 92

Harris Wofford has died at the age of 92. Picture: AP
Harris Wofford has died at the age of 92. Picture: AP

Former US Senator Harris Wofford, a longtime civil rights activist who helped persuade John F Kennedy to make a crucial phone call to the wife of Martin Luther King Jr during the 1960 presidential campaign, has died at the age of 92.

Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta Scott King when her husband was locked in a Georgia prison cell in 1960 is credited by some analysts with turning the black vote in his favour and perhaps proving to be the decisive factor in the race against Republican Richard Nixon.

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Wofford went on to serve as a civil rights aide to Kennedy during his administration and worked in private law practice, higher education and Pennsylvania state government until his upset Senate win in 1991.

Wofford began his activism in high school. Visits to India left him inspired by Mohandas K Gandhi, and he marched with King. He became an aide and friend to Democratic presidents over a span of decades.

“He was really blessed to have such a long and full and interesting and happy life,” his son Daniel Wofford said. “As we realised that we were going to lose him, we began to focus on what an amazing career and father and friend he was to so many.”

As the head of President Bill Clinton’s domestic volunteer programme, Wofford was behind the national Martin Luther King Day of Service, which urged Americans to volunteer on the holiday.

“Harris Wofford believed that every American has a responsibility to make the future better for all of us, and he spent his long, good life doing just that,” Clinton said in a statement. “For more than half a century, he was one of America’s most important moral voices for equality and justice, quality health care as a fundamental right, and creating more opportunities for people to serve their country.”

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania on Tuesday called Wofford “a champion of justice and a man of uncommon courage who dedicated his life to service.”

“It’s only fitting that Harris passed away on the national day of service he helped to bring into existence,” Casey said.

Though perhaps best known for his three years in the Senate, Wofford left a large legacy by shaping government programs behind the scenes.

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As a Kennedy aide, he helped Shriver create the Peace Corps. In the Senate, he led the effort to create the Corporation for National Service.

“I obviously get a lot of joy out of public service,” Wofford said in a 1995 interview. “I’ve followed ideas in life, and the idea of volunteer service has been with me even before I went to college. It’s very hard to imagine life when you’re not following ideas.”

Wofford was president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury and Bryn Mawr College, the women’s liberal arts institution outside Philadelphia, and did a stint as Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party chairman.

In 1991, Wofford was then-Governor Bob Casey Sr’s secretary for labour and industry when Casey appointed him to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of Republican John Heinz.

Six months later, Wofford pulled off a surprise victory in the special election to complete Heinz’s term. He beat Republican Dick Thornburgh, who was President George HW Bush’s attorney general and a former Pennsylvania governor.

The author of four books, Wofford was known as a bit of an egghead, not a smooth-talking politician. He had difficulty speaking in sound bites, and many analysts say he preferred the nuts and bolts of legislation over ribbon-cutting events and public visits.

In the midterm election of 1994, voters gave control of Congress back to Republicans for the first time in decades. In Pennsylvania, Wofford fell in his bid for a full Senate term to Republican Rick Santorum.

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A year later, Clinton named Wofford to head the Corporation for National Service, which included Clinton’s beloved AmeriCorps.

“I’ll always be especially grateful for his role in making AmeriCorps a reality,” Clinton said.

In late 2007, Wofford travelled to Iowa to endorse the candidacy of then-Senator Barack Obama.

According to the New York Times, he told a crowd that he had not felt so inspired “since the days of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King… Barack Obama picked up the torch that they lit.”

In 2016, Wofford, by then a widower of two decades after his wife of 48 years, Clare, died of leukemia, announced in a column in the New York Times that he had found love with a man 50 years his junior.

“At age 70, I did not imagine that I would fall in love again and remarry. But the past 
20 years have made my life a story of two great loves,” he wrote.

Wofford was 75 when he met Matthew Charlton, who was 25, and they married when they were 90 and 40.

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Wofford’s activism in civil rights dated to the 1950s. He served as a lawyer for the US Commission on Civil Rights, was one of the first white graduates of Howard University Law School in 1954 and became a close confidant of King.

Born in 1926 in New York City to a successful insurance salesman and a civic activist, Harris Llewellyn Wofford was active during his teenage years in Scarsdale, New York, advocating worldwide government as the founder of Student Federalists.

But during a visit to India, he was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings and his enthusiasm was tempered by a realisation that more practical solutions would be needed for world problems. He and Clare later wrote “India Afire,” published in 1951, and sent it to King.

He also helped arrange King’s visit to India, and King, already intrigued by Gandhi’s methods, and Wofford came to share an affinity for applying Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence to the civil rights movement.

He is survived by Charlton and three children, Susanne, Daniel and David, and six grandchildren.