Harris Wofford was born in New York City on 9th April, 1926. While at school he read Union Now, a book written by Clarence Streit, that advocated world government. As a result he established the Student Federalists organisation.
Wofford served in the United States Army Air Forces during the Second World War. After graduating from the University of Chicago (1948) and Howard University Law School (1954) he became a lawyer. Wofford was legal assistant, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1954-1958) before becoming a law professor at University of Notre Dame (1959-1960).
Wofford was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South in the late 1950s and became a friend and unofficial advisor to Martin Luther King. King told Wofford that he would rather live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a lamb. In 1957 Wofford arranged for King to visit India. According to Coretta King, after this trip her husband "constantly pondered how to apply Gandhian principles in America." Wofford also helped King write Stride Toward Freedom (1958). The book described what happened during the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott and explained King's views on non-violence and direct action. The book was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students read the book and decided to take action themselves. They started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth's store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of King they did not hit back.
Wofford was involved in negotiations with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 Presidential Campaign. He later recalled: "He (King) was impressed and encouraged by the far-reaching Democratic civil rights platform, and preferred to use the campaign period to negotiate civil rights commitments from both candidates, but particularly from Kennedy."
After his election victory John Kennedy appointed his brother Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General. Wofford was appointed as as his Special Assistant for Civil Rights. Wofford also served as chairman of the Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights. Soon after Kennedy was elected the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides in an attempt to bring an end to segregation in transport. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South.
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Governor James Patterson commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body."
The Freedom Riders were split between two buses. They travelled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reached Anniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
The surviving bus travelled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included John Lewis, James Zwerg, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg later recalled: "My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing." Zwerg wrote a letter to his parents that stated that he would probably be dead by the time they received it.
During the Freedom Riders campaign Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders.
Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to negotiate with Governor James Patterson of Alabama. Harris Wofford, later pointed out: "Seigenthaler arrived in time to escort the first group of wounded and shaken riders from the bus terminal to the airport, and flew with them to safety in New Orleans." The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery. One of the passengers, James Zwerg, later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage." Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died."
Some of the Freedom Riders, including seven women, ran for safety. The women approached an African-American taxicab driver and asked him to take them to the First Baptist Church. However, he was unwilling to violate Jim Crow restrictions by taking any white women. He agreed to take the five African-Americans, but the two white women, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, were left on the curb. They were then attacked by the white mob.
John Seigenthaler, who was driving past, stopped and got the two women in his car. According to Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders (2006): "Suddenly, two rough-looking men dressed in overalls blocked his path to the car door, demanding to know who the hell he was. Seigenthaler replied that he was a federal agent and that they had better not challenge his authority. Before he could say any more, a third man struck him in the back of the head with a pipe. Unconscious, he fell to the pavement, where he was kicked in the ribs by other members of the mob. Pushed under the rear bumper of the car, his battered and motionless body remained there until discovered by a reporter twenty-five minutes later."
Harris Wofford, pointed out: "Seigenthaler went to the defense of a girl being beaten and was clubbed to the ground; he was kicked while he lay there unconscious for nearly half an hour. Again FBI agents present did nothing, except take notes." Robert F. Kennedy later reported: "I talked to John Seigenthaler in the hospital and said that I thought it was very helpful for the Negro vote, and that I appreciated what he had done."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.
Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November. However, James Lawson, one of the Freedom Riders, argued: "We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change."
Robert Kennedy admitted to Anthony Lewis that he had come to the conclusion that Martin Luther King was closely associated with members of the American Communist Party and he asked J. Edgar Hoover “to make an intensive investigation of him, to see who his companions were and also to see what other activities he was involved in… They mad that intensive investigation, and I gave them also permission to put a tap on his phone.”
Hoover reported to Kennedy that was a “Marxist” and that he was very close to Stanley Levison, who was a “secret member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party”. Hoover informed King that Levison, who was a legal adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was a member of Communist Party. However, when King refused to dismiss Levison, the Kennedys became convinced that King was himself a communist.
John F. Kennedy agreed to move Harris Wofford in April 1962. Robert F. Kennedy told Anthony Lewis: “Harris Wofford was very emotionally involved in all these matters and was rather in some areas a slight madman. I didn’t want to have someone in the Civil Rights Division who was dealing not from fact but was dealing from emotion… I wanted advice and ideas from somebody who had the same interests and motivation that I did.” Wofford became the Peace Corps Special Representative for Africa. Later he was appointed as Associate Director of the Peace Corps.
Wofford also served as president of the College at Old Westbury (1966-1970) and Bryn Mawr College (1970-1978). In 1980 he published Of Kennedys and Kings. The book provides an insiders view of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Robert S. McNamara, Theodore Sorenson and other leading political figures in the 1960s.
A member of the Democratic Party, Wofford was Pennsylvania secretary of labor and industry (1987-1991). On 4th April, 1991, Pennsylvania's U.S. Senator, John Heinz, died in an aviation accident leaving his seat in the U.S. Senate open. In the special election held in November 1991, Wofford defeated Dick Thornburgh. The following year he was considered for the vice presidential nomination, although Bill Clinton ultimately chose Al Gore.
Wofford narrowly lost his 1994 bid for re-election to Rick Santorum, 49%-47%. His support for a federal ban on semi-automatic firearms also cost him significant support throughout the state. In October 1995 he was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service. A post he held to January 2001.