In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for the White House against Richard Nixon, winning Democratic presidential tickets still depended on the backing of segregationist party colleagues in the Southern states.
In October of that year, when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and sent to jail on a trumped-up traffic charge in Georgia, his wife, Coretta, then five months pregnant, was legitimately worried about her husband's safety and survival. Kennedy's Southern backers told him not to intervene. But after the persistent advocacy of Harris Wofford and Wofford's close friend Sargent Shriver (JFK's brother-in-law), Kennedy — ignoring the arguments of his own campaign leadership, including his brother Robert — called Mrs. King to offer his comfort and sympathy to her and to say he would do whatever he could to see that justice would be done.
Blacks in the South who could vote at that time were, out of gratitude to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and because local Democrats did not welcome them to the voter rolls, overwhelmingly Republican. "Daddy King," one of the South's most influential ministers and Martin Jr.'s father, was in Coretta Scott King's home when she answered Kennedy's call. He was skeptical of Kennedy's Catholicism and sympathetic to Nixon. After the call, he said the following: "If Kennedy has the courage to wipe the tears from Coretta's eyes, (I) will vote for him whatever his religion." Nixon remained silent. After Democrats delivered Daddy King's endorsement to the national black communities, JFK's narrow victory, with a smashing 79 percent of the U.S. black vote, was secure. And the national Democratic Party would abandon the segregationist South to champion federal civil rights laws.
In Wofford's single winning campaign, his 1991 upset win over Dick Thornburgh for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, he ran on an issue that many national Democrats had told him would be a loser, national health care. Wofford, after a conversation with a Philadelphia doctor, insisted on making a TV ad in which he said straightforwardly: "If criminals have the right to a lawyer, I think working Americans should have the right to a doctor. ... I'm Harris Wofford, and I believe there is nothing more fundamental than the right to see a doctor when you're sick." Wofford won, and the national debate on health care was profoundly changed, such that 20 years later, the Affordable Care Act could become the law of the land.
Harris Wofford, a committed American citizen who died this past week at 92, proved conclusively that one individual and two political campaigns can change our nation.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.