Civil Rights History, Vision, & Progress: Thoughts from Harris Wofford
AW: You were instrumental in the origination of the current form of MLK, Jr. Day. What exactly was your involvement?
HW: (The notion that) it was a day off of work was a contradiction. He (MLK) would want it to be a day of action, a day of service. There was so much work left to be done on social justice he was seeking. The King Holiday had been reauthorized, but it still needed an attached bill that really declared it a day of service and provided modest funds to the Corporation for National and Community Service to grant to small community groups to really get it started. (Wofford helped pass legislation in 1994, along with Congressman John Lewis, that transformed the King Day into a day of citizen action through volunteer service) It's grown! Partly because of the King Commission promoting it, partly because the Corporation gave mini-grants, and most of all because the idea is right. It caught fire.
In Philadelphia every year it's gotten bigger and more organized. They are trying to make it a “commitment day” in which people commit for a year or semester of service- the semester ending with Youth Service Day in April. It is to be used as a sign up day for continuing commitment, tutoring in after school programs, Habitat building, whatever you do on the service day; you're recruits for continuing service. It's no where near what I imagined or what I would like. I would like a whole school district in which the entire school system endorses the idea of service learning in schools and of MLK Day. I'd like it to be done to have the pressure of persuasion on all students, teachers, and parents to do it together together. There still is no place where that commitment is built in. Teachers could say what projects they want to do and when, and address the problems in the community. It (MLK Day) is a small part of the potential of this. I hope AmeriCorps alums might pick up this idea and …take the initiative in their community. If there isn't one in their community, to help start it with an alliance of organizations that could help sponsor it.
AW: You had a personal connection with some of the civil rights leaders, especially Martin Luther King Jr. How was your connection originally formed?
HW: Our tie was actually Gandhi. The same time in India in which I was immersing myself with all the writings of Gandhi in 1949, he had heard a lecture on Gandhi in Philadelphia while he was at Seminary. He (MLK) had gone out and bought all the books he could on Gandhi and read them and said someday I may do something to practice this. And he (MLK) had read some of my writings, one paper particularly on why the civil rights should utilize Gandhi (and his teachings), before the bus boycott.
AW: What is the name of that paper?
HW: “Gandhi the Civil Rights Lawyer” was the name of it. Hampton Convocation, now Hampton University in the fall of 1955. He had been given this by the head of the NAACP in Montgomery. But he had already immersed himself in Gandhi. So I'm not claiming that's it's my piece. We started talking during the boycott and afterwards he invited me to come down and give a workshop on Gandhi at the first anniversary of Institute of Nonviolence and Social Change. And over the years I was one of his strategists. He and I strongly liked the Gandhi formula: Democracy needed to add two dimensions to its current statutes and laws. He called it Satyagraha, meaning firmness and truth. Two sides of the coin, one was civil disobedience. One was protest or action against injustice and segregation and the other was constructive service. If you were engaged in civil disobedience you should be engaged in constructive service. And if you were in constructive service you'd better be ready to engage in civil disobedience if something had to be done. And the vote. The spade, the prison and the vote was the formula. Three dimensions of politics that Gandhi thought Western democracy missed. And King loved that. Spade represented constructive service, prison is civil disobedience and the vote is democratic policy. And Gandhi believed that would be three dimensional democracy. So it required citizens practice all three of them. And that was a frame in which he (King) thought. In other words nonviolence was not just a principle. It was being in action that you actually accomplished yourself. And King was not interested in the politics of personal psychic satisfaction, which is a way of describing people that witness what they believe, which is an important thing to do. But often protest movements tend to pick up if the purpose is persuasion and not just witnessing your belief in something. And sometimes its actions can become counterproductive, in which you witness what you believe by doing something that actually pushes people away. And King was constantly measuring everything he did by what would help persuade. And part of what I find appealing in Barack Obama is that I think that's the way he thinks. That this is a great process of persuasion. And it's not just words and it's not just trying to get my project through. It's how do you persuade people to come together and really solve these problems?
AW: Can you talk a bit about your travels to India and other countries, and how it shaped your perception of civic participation?
HW: Clare (Wofford's late wife) and I traveled to India, which was certainly a pivotal experience. My first pivotal experience, however, was traveling to India at age 11 or 12 for six months with my grandmother. We traveled around and had a great sort of little Forrest Gump trip...little Harris Gump if you will. We saw the king and queen of England and Churchill warning against Hitler's rise in 1937 and 1938, but we also heard Mussolini from his balcony saying take Italy out of the League of Nations. From the balcony, we saw the fascists shouting death to England. In Shanghai, the Japanese conquered most of the city and destroyed most of the Chinese city. From that point on, it shaped my frame. After India, because, the trip to India pursuing the trail of Gandhi led to people asking ‘have you been to jail against it? What kind of protest have you done against this segregation in the United States?'
So I came home, having been stirred. The sense of integration is a worldwide theme. How does America integrate into the developing world? And Gandhi emerged in college as the great and big figure. One wise man said our century, the 20th century had fought twice, once with Einstein once with Gandhi. And Einstein found how to crack the atom in the physical universe and it's led to a lot of destruction and potential. Gandhi showed how you could crack the atom of people power, peacefully. It was that notion that led me to study Gandhi and go (back) to India. He was killed before we got there. So we (he and his wife Clare) wrote this book, India Afire, together.
AW: In addition to your work with the Obama Presidential Campaign, what initiatives are you currently working on?
HW: I've now been enlisted as spokesman for Experience Wave, a campaign to spread the idea that, in a sense, retires the concept of retirement and recognizes that most people want to stay active whatever the year is that they finish their main job. A lot of people are doing encore jobs. The campaign is not against enjoying life. It's to get the concept that the second half of your life is beginning. You can have a career where you're making money. You can volunteer in the field you have worked or you can try something new. Governments can sponsor the idea by encouraging adult education. The Boomers are beginning to cash social security checks. Will they view themselves as a burden or will they view themselves as a pool of talent, knowledge and experience that can help solve the problems of the country? We're trying to help the Boomer generation become another greatest generation. Young people need to see themselves as leaders, part of the solution. It's the same with the Boomer generation. They need to see themselves again as part of the solution.
AW: What are your hopes and expectations of younger generations (the currentAmeriCorps generation?)
HW: Youth in any generation wants to be needed... wants to be challenged. And the needs of the nation need the service and labor of the younger generation. And the younger generation needs to be needed by the nation and those two needs come together. And I never had doubts that, by and large, younger generations are ready for that. And you need to learn what ignites people and what excites them. And you need to know how to make it cool. It's the nature of young people I think to probably have the greatest ratio of idealism in them. And in their lifetime they learn the obstacles and the disappointments. Realistic discouragement. It's part of growing up in citizenship and in life, according to David Resner, the famous sociologist from Harvard. He hoped Peace Corps volunteers would come home with realistic discouragement and then pick up the torch with that seasoning and go forward to help solve problems and help people in the community. It's been an expectation of mine, well, long before the Peace Corps.