The Hon. Harris Wofford
2007 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient
Transcript from the Hon. Woffords’s speech at the 19th Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, January 7, 2007 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Humanitarian Award was created in 2004 to honor a person whose service to others has made the world a better place. All of us can be great because anyone can serve, Dr. King liked to say. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. This award honors a person who has lived up to Dr. King’s words and example. Prior recipients include Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, Congressman John L. Lewis of Georgia, and Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Mrs. Edelman is a tireless advocate for children, an instrument the Lord uses to give voice for those who have no voice. Mrs. Edelman’s with us this evening; let’s give her a round of applause.
This year, joining the illustrious group is the honorable Harris Wofford, former senator from Pennsylvania, a passionate advocate of citizens service and a tireless crusader for civil rights. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the former senator, Mr. Harris Wofford.
Long before you became part of President Kennedy’s administration, assisting in the formation of the Peace Corps, you were living out the words of his famous creed: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Your own service focused on helping those who needed it the most: the poor, the disenfranchised, the abused, the hungry. After graduating from Yale Law School, you chose to continue your legal studies here in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, becoming the first Caucasian man to receive a law degree from that institution. You say it was there that you deepened your empathy for African Americans, and in the foreword of your book, Of Kennedy and Kings, your friend Bill Moyers wrote that yours is the most principled life he has known.
You were witness to the major events and issues of mid-20th century America, and had an insider’s role in shaping some of those events. You’ve walked with the mighty, but you’ve cared for the weak. You were at the march from Selma to Montgomery, you were in the villages of Ethiopia. Not only a vital presence among your own generation, but as the president of two academic institutions, the State University of New York at Old Westbury and Bryn Mawr College, you have guided and influenced younger generations. When Dr. King spoke to young people, he urged them to make a career of humanity. And you are the embodiment of that message, Senator. We are deeply honored to have you with us here tonight. And I’m privileged to present you with the 2007 Choral Arts Society of Washington Humanitarian Award.
THE HON. HARRIS WOFFORD
Maxine Baker, if you keep up what you’re doing, you too someday may find yourself hearing an epitaph that you don’t deserve while you’re still alive. Thank you for your kind words. The line of succession that I humbly stand in tonight makes me want to begin with my World War II Army Air Corps salute to Marian Wright Edelman. She’s in there in the dark. I can’t see her now, but she brought light to Mississippi and very dangerous times, and she’s helped us see that the next stage of the civil rights revolution is the human rights need of all children, their needs and their rights, which should be our great number one domestic priority.
My predecessors here – Dorothy Height, who stood so tall in Martin Luther King’s time and in all the years since, and John Lewis, the true hero on the bridge who marched and was beaten and who has not stopped and is at work for all of us in the Congress of the United States today.
So, these kind words I appreciate, they’re heartwarming, but I have to confess, this is my own little vanity, that the best compliment, the one I cherish most, came from Martin Luther King in a jovial mood, when he had just been hearing from some lawyers on how they could keep him out of jail. He said to me, “You know, you’re the only lawyer in our volunteer team that will help me go to jail instead of using all the tricks of the trade to keep me out.”
But in respect to great courageous NAACP lawyers like Marian Wright Edelman, I want to add, as Thurgood Marshall once did, “It seems to be everybody helps Martin get out of jail except us lawyers.” It was very important that lawyers help people get out of jail and put some other people in jail. And win the rights in court that Martin Luther King helped us win in jail and in the streets. Leon Harris, I’m including you in my thanks, I couldn’t hear everything you said so I won’t try to correct the exaggerations.
There are two things, though, that I hope you remember about the decade of Martin Luther King. The first is that the two chief goals that he kept us on, like James Carville saying “stick with the message,” was to end public segregation in all parts of American life, all enforced public segregation, and to win the rights to vote for all Americans. And we did.
In 1935, a group of American Negroes went to see Gandhi to ask him to come to this country to take charge for a little while, and lead the charge of civil rights in the United States. Gandhi talked to them at length and then said “How I wish I could share your suffering, but I haven’t made good my message yet in India, so you will have to carry that burden and that responsibility. But from what you’ve told me, I do believe it may be through the American Negro that the unadulterated message of nonviolent direct action will be delivered to the world.” And it was. And young people should come to and appreciate that victory at a time when there are plenty of defeats.
The second thing to remember about that decade is that at the end of it, for Martin Luther King, if you listen to his last sermons, his message was: “I’ve been to the mountaintop, but there’s a lot more climbing to do. I’ve seen the promised land, I probably won’t get there, but we have to climb the mountains of race and poverty and lack of opportunity for education to make all that great American word a reality for all Americans.”
And then, just a little, please remember two great women, without whom I don’t think we would be celebrating Martin Luther King today. First is Rosa Parks, because she was pivotal. If she had not said “No” on that bus, Martin Luther King would not have had the occasion, as a 26-year-old preacher being asked to chair a one-day boycott, to pick up the torch of nonviolent direct action and carry it forward in this country. That 26-year-old said “Yes” because she said “No.” And if there hadn’t been the Montgomery bus boycott to lead, I don’t know that [we’d be singing about] that silver-tongued young pastor.
The second person, of course, was Coretta Scott King, who gave up a professional career in music –where she would have been among these great singers on this stage today – in order to fulfill the love that she and Martin Luther King came to have, to build a family and to be at his side in action and in service throughout her life.
And I’ll close with the little story of the first time my wife met Martin Luther King. He had asked me to come over and drive him from Baltimore to Washington, and talk a little at the hotel when we got there about Gandhi and action in this country. Coretta was in the backseat with my wife. Martin and I were kibitzing on Gandhi and India, and the next steps that he was thinking about in civil rights.
And we heard Coretta say, “Claire, I want you to know that I have this awful nightmare, that the road that Martin has chosen is going to lead to his death.” And she said, “It just keeps coming back to me.”
And Martin turned to her and said, “Corrie, don’t keep thinking about that nightmare. Think what we can do, and the fun and the good time we’re going to have while we have it. But remember,” he said, “I didn’t choose this road. The group came and asked. They asked me to be the chair, and I said ‘yes.'” And then he hummed a spiritual. It went something like, “the Lord came by and asked, and my soul said ‘yes.'” And so, we’re here tonight to celebrate the fact that for Rosa Parks, for Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, their souls said “Yes.” Let’s try to do likewise.