Harris Wofford was the Kennedy administration’s civil rights expert and an ally of Martin Luther King. Wofford believed in employing a mix of direct action and legal techniques to combat segregation. He applauded King’s leadership in Montgomery: “You have already proved yourselves master artists of non-violent direct action” (Papers 3:226).
Born in New York City to a line of southern aristocrats, Wofford graduated from the University of Chicago in 1948. A lifelong advocate of Gandhian nonviolence, Wofford studied in India before returning to the United States and enrolling at Howard Law School, making 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.
Like many of King’s other advisors, Wofford first heard of King during the Montgomery bus boycott. Wofford wrote to King, sent him a copy of his book, India Afire, and offered his perspectives on the application of the techniques of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to Montgomery. King recalled reading a copy of a talk on the application of nonviolent tactics against segregation that Wofford gave at Hampton Institute in October 1955. 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” (King, March 1961). Although initially not part of King’s inner circle of advisors, Wofford urged King to go on his India trip and was instrumental in arranging funding for the trip from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.
Wofford participated, along with King, in a convocation at Howard University in November 1957. Speaking on “Non-Violence and the Law,” Wofford told the gathering that “what Martin Luther King has given us is the unadulterated message of nonviolence which Gandhi wanted the Negroes finally to deliver to the world.” King used some of the ideas expressed in this speech in his chapter, “Where Do We Go from Here?” in Stride Toward Freedom. King wrote in the preface to this book that he was grateful to Wofford “for significant suggestions and real encouragement” (King, 11).
After several years on the Civil Rights Commission established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Wofford joined the staff of presidential candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960. Eager to win the black vote, Wofford managed a meeting between King and Kennedy on 23 June 1960. Several months later, when King was arrested for his participation in an Atlantan sit-in, Wofford suggested that Kennedy phone Coretta Scott King, an action that made a crucial difference in the election.
Kennedy appointed Wofford as a special assistant on civil rights in his new administration, despite Wofford’s interest in joining the Peace Corps. In his White House role, Wofford recognized the political realities of the day. In a memo sent to Kennedy soon after his 1960 victory, he noted that “although it is heresy in the civil rights camp to say this … you can do without any substantial civil rights legislation this session of Congress if you go ahead with a substantial executive action program” (Wofford, 30 December 1960). Political realities would also force Wofford into uncomfortable situations with old allies, particularly when the Kennedys asked him to inform King of Federal Bureau of Investigation suspicions that longtime King advisor Stanley Levison had Communist affiliations. Wofford later wrote that “what Kennedy liked best in my role, and I liked least, was my function as a buffer between him and the civil rights forces pressing for presidential action” (Wofford, 164).
After two years Wofford left the White House staff to go to Africa with the Peace Corps and then became the group’s associate director, serving until 1966. He participated in the Selma to Montgomery March, and after several university positions and jobs in law, became a senator from Pennsylvania in 1991. He served until 1995.
King, Letter to the Editor, March 1961, MCMLK-RWWL.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Wofford, India Afire, 1951.
Wofford, “Non-Violence and the Law,” 7 November 1957, MCMLK-RWWL.
Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, 1980.
Wofford to Kennedy, 30 December 1960, JFKCAMP-MBJFK.
Wofford to King, 25 April 1956, in Papers 3:225–226.