Harris Wofford, Former Senator, Civil Rights Activist, Dies At 92

Jan 22, 2019
Originally published on January 22, 2019 6:28 pm

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

Former Sen. Harris Wofford, a lifelong civil rights advocate and backer of progressive causes, died Monday at a Washington hospital at age 92.

Wofford died after suffering a fall, his son told The Washington Post.

His death on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday was, perhaps, appropriate. He marched alongside King in Selma and played a key, behind-the-scenes role in the 1960 presidential campaign by encouraging Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy to reach out to Coretta Scott King, after her husband was imprisoned for a minor traffic violation in Georgia.

And when he arrived in the Senate, Wofford worked with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to make King's birthday a national holiday and day of service.

Late in his life, Wofford, whose wife, Clare, died in 1996, married Matthew Charlton, a man 50 years younger whom he had met some years earlier on a beach in Florida.

In an essay in the New York Times, Wofford wrote:

"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."

Wofford was born in New York City in 1926 and grew up in suburban Scarsdale. When he was 11, he accompanied his grandmother on a six-month world tour. He said he saw Mussolini denounce the League of Nations, visited Shanghai after it was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and, in India, became "fascinated" by Mahatma Gandhi.

He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1948. He later attended Howard University Law School, becoming one of its first white graduates. He also received a law degree from Yale.

President John F. Kennedy and members of the Civil Rights Commission pose during a White House conference in Washington in 1961. Wofford is seated to Kennedy's left.
Byron Rollins / AP

He served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and became a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. After Kennedy's election, he became a special assistant to the president for civil rights, and he helped found the Peace Corps, becoming its special representative to Africa and later an associate director.

After leaving the government, Wofford went into academia, becoming president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and then just the second male president of Bryn Mawr.

He also found time to get himself arrested during protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

In the spring of 1991, after spending time as a private practice lawyer and as Pennsylvania's secretary of labor and industry, Wofford was appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat left after Republican Sen. John Heinz III was killed in a plane crash.

He won the special election that November over Republican Richard Thornburgh, in part by making health care his primary issue. In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Wofford was asked by host Bob Edwards why it had taken so long for health care to become a major political issue:

"How long, oh, Lord, how long? ...There's a tide in the affairs of men with issues and — and the tide is — is coming in on this issue now. The ... world has turned upside down in — in the last 12 years — 12 months, but 12 years, too. The great enemy of four decades is gone — the Soviet Union. The hundreds of billions — trillions — we've spent in military spending overseas is not going to be necessary anymore. We ... have a chance to turn our priorities right side up, and at the top of our list of priorities should be a national health insurance plan."

But Wofford's tenure in the Senate was short-lived. He was defeated in the 1994 GOP congressional sweep by Republican Rick Santorum.

Former President Barack Obama presents a 2012 Citizens Medal to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford in 2013.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Wofford returned to public service, becoming CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of AmeriCorps.

In 2008, he introduced Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama before his Philadelphia speech on race, "A More Perfect Union."

He also became a commentator for NPR. In 1995, during a national debate over affirmative action, Wofford wrote:

"Race is the oldest, most dangerous wedge in American politics, a time-tested way to split the nation apart. Once it led to civil war. For years afterwards, especially in the South, it was the way for demagogues to win elections."

John Gomperts, his legislative director in the Senate and chief of staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service, said Wofford's life "was one giant adventure."

Asked what Wofford's legacy would be, Gomperts said it was "the buoyant and endless pursuit of a better nation, a better world."

: 1/21/19

A previous version of this story misspelled Coretta Scott King's first name as Corretta.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A moment now to remember former Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. He died yesterday after suffering a fall. He was 92. Wofford was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and progressive causes. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Harris Wofford led a long and, in a word, interesting life. His former chief of staff John Gomperts sums it up this way.

JOHN GOMPERTS: His life was one giant adventure.

NAYLOR: Wofford was born to a well-to-do family in New York in 1926. On a world tour with his grandmother at age 11, he watched Mussolini denounce the League of Nations from a Rome balcony and saw Gandhi in India. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II and in the mid-'50s became one of the very first whites to graduate from Howard University law school. He also had a law degree from Yale. He helped John F. Kennedy get elected president, helped found the Peace Corps and marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King in Selma. Gomperts says the day Wofford died was fitting.

GOMPERTS: The poetic thing that happened is that Harris died yesterday on Martin Luther King holiday, a day that he and John Lewis together turned into a day of service through legislation passed in 1994.

NAYLOR: Wofford became a senator in 1991 after a plane crash killed Republican Senator John Heinz. He won the seat later that year in part by making health care an issue. He was asked in a 1992 NPR interview why it took so long for health care to become recognized as a problem by lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRIS WOFFORD: How long? Oh, Lord, how long? I - the - there's a tide in the affairs of men with issues, and the tide is coming in on this issue now.

NAYLOR: Wofford's time in the Senate was short-lived. He lost re-election in 1994. He then returned to public service, becoming CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of AmeriCorps. He also became a commentator for NPR. In 1995, he had this to say about the debate over affirmative action.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WOFFORD: Race is the oldest, most dangerous wedge in American politics, a time-tested way to split the nation apart. Once it led to civil war. For years afterwards, especially in the South, it was the way for demagogues to win elections.

NAYLOR: I asked John Gomperts what he thought was Wofford's legacy.

GOMPERTS: The buoyant and endless pursuit of a better nation, a better world.

NAYLOR: After his wife's passing in 1996, Wofford fell in love with a man 50 years his junior, Matthew Charlton. The two were married when Wofford was 90. He wrote in The New York Times that matrimony is not based on anyone's sexual nature, choices or dreams; it is based on love. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.