Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Neil Boyer (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Let’s honor the life of a great American who took an unconventional path
By Michael Gerson
January 24 at 5:38 PM
Many of the most interesting and consequential Americans of the 20th century found greatness in politics, military service and diplomacy. Only one took the path of the recently deceased Harris Wofford.
After a precocious childhood that included extensive global travel and a stint in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Wofford went to India for several months to absorb teachings about nonviolent social change from disciples of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He soon became one of the main conduits of that theory for the American civil rights movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Wofford found a place advising then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. Nearing Election Day, the young activist urged Kennedy to call and comfort Coretta Scott King at a time when her husband was in prison. This gesture helped secure African American votes that may have tipped a razor-tight election in Kennedy’s favor. (It is, by the way, the secret dream of every staffer to offer that one bit of wisdom that changes history.)
Robert F. Kennedy called Wofford — at that point a White House adviser on racial issues — a “slight madman.” It was this intensity of conviction that Wofford then brought to the civil rights movement, in which he earned one of the proudest American boasts: I marched at Selma.
That is one thing — boasting — that Wofford hardly ever did. But people were often carried along by the upward pull of his idealism. Things he set his mind to do tended to happen. He helped found the Peace Corps, and VISTA (a kind of domestic Peace Corps), and AmeriCorps, and Senior Corps. All the corps, under different theories and acronyms, were trying to encourage service to the country, a cause he advocated with evangelical zeal.
Other than what he called his “brief Republican period” at age 12, Wofford was a progressive. But of a certain type. He was not an activist because he found his country to be inherently flawed. He was an activist who loved his country so deeply that he could not bear to see it desecrated by racism and despair.
The content of Wofford’s communitarian liberalism has always had significant overlap with a kind of civil-society conservatism. In both approaches, solving social problems is not just the work of government professionals; it is also the work of citizens. Countless small acts of service can add up to a more just and welcoming society. And one hopeful role for government is to catalyze volunteerism — employing government to encourage self-government. On this common ideological ground, Wofford built bipartisan consensus — say, on AmeriCorps — that few thought possible.
Wofford’s theory of social change is compelling. It speaks to the individual. No life lived in service to others is empty. Service is a good way to launch young people into responsible adulthood. A good way for seniors to share undiminished wisdom and skills. A good way for anyone to give purpose to their freedom and direction to their gifts.
It offers improvement at the social level. Service, as Wofford viewed it, is a source of grass-roots solutions to lingering social problems. Many of our worst challenges are deepened by apathy and passivity. They are overcome by committed, organized community effort.
And service is a way to cultivate something less tangible: the practice of citizenship. We are a nation that talks a great deal about who should be a citizen. There is less emphasis on how to be a citizen. And that is often learned in the company of others who share a public goal. Bonds of common purpose become ties of civic friendship, reaching across political divides. In a time of bitterness, choosing to serve others offers a kind of healing grace.
Wofford carried these ideals in a manner that amplified their influence. Cynicism melted around him, as if he were a bonfire in the snow. He was kind but tenacious — as anyone discovered when he wanted them to sign a letter, or serve on a commission, or attend a summit. Encountering him always left the question: How can someone so gentle be so influential?
Along the way, he left a country strewn with people who were shaped in some way by his example. So many found a meeting or conversation with Wofford to be a turning point in their lives. Perhaps because he saw service to others not as a grim duty but as the path of joy.
His path has led onward. And so passes Harris Wofford, citizen.