Kamala Devi Harris : 127 Years in the Making
A profile on Vice Presidential nominee Senator Kamala Devi Harris and the history that led to her-story
[reminder: all underlined text except for section headers are links to source material]
The Story Of Tonight
You can draw a straight line through history from Mahatma Gandhi to Mordecai Johnson to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Congressman John Lewis to President Barack Obama to Vice President Joe Biden to Senator Kamala Harris.
A line that connects the past to a present that currently is revisiting old wounds along racial divides. Senator Harris is a complicated choice for a complicated time - a perfect fit to apply the wisdom of the past to the struggles of the present to build a better future.
In this piece we will look at the ground breaking nomination of Kamala Devi Harris as the 2020 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in the context of the legacies that have culminated in this moment of destiny.
As we explore the confluence of these civil rights movements, you will undoubtedly see parallels from the early 1900s to 1960s to the present.
19th century clergyman Theodore Parker once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote was made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in modern times has been a guiding light for President Obama.
I'd like to add to the sentiment, that sometimes the arc of the moral universe bends so much that it comes full circle and requires us to point it towards justice, once more.
That moment is now and Kamala Harris is the figure this moment has chosen to help bend that arc - who better to prosecute the case against Donald J. Trump than a former District Attorney & Attorney General?
Tonight, Wednesday August 19, 2020 Kamala Harris becomes the first woman of color to be on the official Presidential ticket for a major party. She is the story of tonight.
On Tuesday November 3, 2020 we will ponder what is the story of tomorrow?
History Has Its Eyes On You
On June 7, 1893, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa a young 24 year old attorney spent a night shivering alone in a train station pondering his destiny. That attorney had just been thrown off the train for refusing to leave the first-class section, despite having a ticket, because of the color of his skin.
He had spent his short stay in South Africa, to that point, being beaten and kicked into a gutter because of his race - because he was not white.
Would he stand up for his rights, or would he return home...to India? That was the question running through his mind that particular evening.
The attorney's name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, but you may know him simply as the Mahatma.
This moment is often pointed to as the moment Gandhi began his legacy as a civil rights activist.
“It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation,” he wrote in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial – only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.”
Gandhi would choose to stand up for his rights and protest his dismissal from the train and he was ultimately allowed to board the next day. That moment of civil disobedience would send Gandhi down a path that would ultimately result in the "satyagraha" and "ahimsa" revolution that freed India and Pakistan from British rule in 1947.
What Comes Next?
Three years after Gandhi led India to its independence, Mordecai Johnson, then President of Howard University, would speak of Gandhi's "satyagraha" and "ahimsa" philosophies during a lecture at Philadelphia's Fellowship House in 1950. The terms embody a non-violent philosophy of passive political resistance in support of a greater truth - a truth of equality and justice.
In the audience was a 21 year old theology student from Crozer Seminary in Chester, PA who would call the lecture so "profound and electrifying" that he "left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi's life and works." That student was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom,” King later wrote.
Dr. King would advance the practice of non-violent civil disobedience to take on systemic racism, poverty, and war in America by protesting segregation and redlining as well as advocating for the right to vote.
His efforts would deliver change to this nation in the form of groundbreaking legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 & 1968, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution eliminating poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Right Hand Man
As Dr. King stirred a nation to fight for Civil Rights, he inspired others that this was a cause worthy of trouble, including a young man from Alabama named John Robert Lewis.
But in 1955, at 15 years old, I heard of Dr. King, and I heard of Rosa Parks. They inspired me to get in trouble. I remember meeting Rosa Parks as a student. In 1957, I wrote Dr. King a letter and told him that I wanted to attend a little [whites-only] college 10 miles from my home—Troy State College, known today as Troy University. I submitted my application and my high-school transcript. I never heard a word from the school, so that gave me the idea that I should write Dr. King.
Sadly, Congressman John Lewis passed away last month and as the nation both mourns and honors this Civil Rights icon, we celebrate his "good trouble" in a time of turmoil when Americans across the country take to the streets to march in peaceful protest for their rights.
Congressman Lewis met Rosa Parks at the age of 17 and Dr. King at the age of 18. He spent the entirety of his life fighting the good fight and advocating for everyone's fundamental cornerstone right to vote. A right we must exercise in November.
We have to get people to participate in the democratic process—to register to vote on every occasion when there is an election. I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma [during the voting-rights march to Montgomery, in 1965]. I almost died on that bridge, and as long as I have breath in my body, I think I will be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Forever I’m indebted to him, and I will do what I can to see that all people have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
Till the end of his days, Congressman Lewis lived and breathed the value of the democratic process. With this in mind, Senator Kamala Harris called for the immediate passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to reinstate as well as expand the rights and protections that were stripped by the Supreme Court several years earlier.
“The bottom line is,” Sen. Kamala Harris says, “if you really want to honor John Lewis on the issue of restoring the impact of the Voting Rights Act, pass the bill. I’m sure John Lewis would say, ‘Look, naming it after me versus passing it? Every day of the week, pass the darn thing.’ ”
The Room Where It Happens
In March 1965, a 25-year-old Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights advocates planned to march from Selma to Montgomery to draw attention to the need for voting rights in the state, which was infamous for denying African Americans the right to vote.
"We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world, the hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens of Alabama that are denied the right to vote," Lewis said. "We intend to march to Montgomery to present said grievance to Governor George C. Wallace."
50 years later, Lewis made the same march with America's first black President, Barack Obama.
“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders.”
The former President first met John Lewis as a student at Harvard Law School and expressed to the Congressman how much Lewis' activism in the 1960s meant to him. When Obama was inaugurated, he reiterated to Lewis that it was only because of the Civil Rights Movement that Obama could dare to dream to be this great nation's President.
Upon his inauguration in 2009, many outlets reported the poignant words the freshman president wrote on the program of the seasoned legislator. He signed Lewis’ program with the words,
“Because of you, John.”
In his statements about Lewis’ passing in July, President Obama explained why he wrote the note on congressman Lewis' program.
“In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey toward a more perfect union.”
I Know Him
Dr. King and John Lewis were part of the "Big Six" leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Their activism inspired marches and protests across the United States. Their successes paved the way for an Obama Presidency, as well as a Joe Biden Vice Presidency.
2020 has thus far been the year of the unknown - with the coronavirus, impeachment, upheaval in the middle east, continued foreign interference in our election, an assault on the USPS, and murder hornets - not to mention a historic slowdown of our economy juxtaposed with historic highs for our stock markets amidst the backdrop of a devaluing dollar.
But we do know Joe Biden and we do know that he's been here before. When Obama and Biden took office in 2009, they were coming off of a global financial meltdown as well as a failed lengthy war on terror in the Middle East.
Over 8 years they put the economy back together, bailed out the auto industry, resurrected our global alliances, executed the Paris Climate Agreement, ended Osama bin Laden's reign of terror, navigated the country through infectious disease epidemics, and led one of the greatest stretches of job growth in american history.
When President Joe Biden takes office in January of 2021, he will once again face a country in turmoil in need of steady leadership. Congressman Jim Clyburn is confident Biden is up to the challenge, because Joe has been here before.
"When you look at his experiences, his comfort levels with dealing with diverse issues and diverse people with diverse backgrounds, Joe knows the people that I try to represent. And that, to me, is very important. And if you look at his record, I'm proud of his record. He wrote the Violence Against Women Act. He wrote the bill that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. He has been a partner with Barack Obama for the eight years in the White House. And when we were putting together the Affordable Care Act, he worked very hard on that.
And so Joe has the background and the experience. I'm very comfortable with the fact that I think he's best.
We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us"
On Monday August 17, 2020 Michelle Obama laid out quite clearly that President Trump has not been able to meet the moment.
"Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is."
President Biden knows he will need a partner he can trust in righting the ship, as he was to President Obama. Kamala Harris is that partner.
"Vice President Biden's focus from the very start was on who would be the best governing partner to help him lead our country out of the chaos created by Donald Trump. Senator Harris is the right person to join Joe Biden in bringing our country together and restoring the soul of the nation," read a joint statement from the Biden campaign's selection committee.
"I have no doubt that I picked the right person to join me as the next vice president of the United States of America," Biden said in scripted remarks at a high school in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)
Shyamala Gopalan was born in British occupied India in 1938, roughly 8 1/2 years before Mahatma Gandhi's non violent revolution resulted in India's independence. Her parents were both Tamil Brahmins and they encouraged Shyamala to pursue her interests in the sciences despite societal pressures that she focus on homemaking.
In 1958, Shyamala was admitted to a Master's program in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California Berkeley. Her parents funded her studies in America through their retirement savings and they communicated by mail as there was no phone in their family home in India.
Shyamala would go on to:
Earn her Master's and a PhD from Berkeley
Work as a breast cancer researcher at University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin
Work for 16 years at Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research and McGill University Faculty of Medicine
Serve as a peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health
Serve as a site visit team member for the Federal Advisory Committee
Serve on the President's Special Commission on Breast Cancer
Work in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Many of you reading this will likely relate to Shyamala's story of a hard working accomplished immigrant who came to America to become a significant contributor to, as well as a benefactor of, the American Dream. Her story is my mother's story. It is my father's story. It is the story of what makes America great.
But Shyamala's contributions to society did not start and end with her breast cancer research. A child of British occupied India, who lived through the Gandhi revolution, Shyamala recognized the importance of Dr. King and John Lewis' Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s....and so she marched.
She marched for equality, for justice, for the right to vote. She was not alone. She was joined by Donald Harris, whom she met and married in 1963. They met and fell in love during their active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Donald Harris was born in 1938 in Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica and claims to be a descendant of slave owner Hamilton Brown, the namesake of Brown's Town, Jamaica. Harris immigrated to the US in 1963 to earn a PhD from University of California, Berkeley which he completed in 1966.
Harris would go on to:
Teach economics at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1966 to 1967
Teach economics at Northwestern University from 1967 to 1968
Teach economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an associate professor in 1968
Join the faculty of Stanford University as a professor of economics in 1972 (he would retire from Stanford and become a professor emeritus in 1998)
Serve as the Director of the Consortium Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies in 1986–1987
Serve as a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil in 1990 and 1991, and in Mexico in 1992
"My parents marched and shouted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s because of them and the folks who also took to the streets to fight for justice that I am where I am," Harris wrote on Instagram. "They laid the path for me, as only the second Black woman ever elected to the United States Senate."
The two "met and fell in love at Berkeley while participating in the civil rights movement," according to Harris's autobiography, The Truths We Hold. "[Shyamala's] marriage—and her decision to stay in the United States—were the ultimate acts of self-determination and love."
According to a 2004 clip from the Los Angeles Times,"a favorite family story begins with Harris's parents pushing her in a stroller as they marched for civil rights, joining in the protest chants. After one march, Harris's mom innocuously asked, 'What do you want, Kamala?' The toddler replied: 'FEE-DOM!'"
Shyamala's father was also a civil rights advocate.
"When I was a young girl visiting my grandparents in India, I’d join my grandfather and his buddies on their morning walk along the beach as they would talk about the importance of fighting for democracy and civil rights," Harris wrote in an Instagram post. "Those walks made me who I am today."
As Kamala Devi Harris takes the stage tonight to accept her historic nomination as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, never forget where she comes from. Her parents were immigrants who were forged in the fire of slavery and colonialism that came to American for a better life and contributed to the nation's intellectual capital as well as its advocacy for civil rights.
What'd I Miss?
I started this piece revisiting a moment in 1893 when a 24 year old attorney named Gandhi was faced with a monumental choice. After being thrown off the train in South Africa because of the color of his skin and his refusal to leave the all-whites only first class cabin, he had to decide: fight or flight? That moment gave birth to a nonviolent revolution that gave inspiration to yet another, for which we have all benefited.
62 1/2 years later, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was taking the bus home from work in Montgomery, Alabama. She was already sitting down and was in the row closest to the front for black people. When the bus began to fill up, the driver told the people in Rosa's row to move back in order to make room for a white passenger. Rosa was tired of being treated like a second class person. She refused to move. Rosa was then arrested and fined $10. Although other people had been arrested for similar infractions, it was Rosa's arrest that sparked a protest against segregation.
Civil rights leaders and ministers got together to organize a day to boycott the buses. That meant that for one day black people would not ride the buses. They picked December 5th. They handed out pamphlets so people would know what to do and on December 5th around 90% of black people in Montgomery did not ride the buses. The boycott lasted over a year.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott brought the subject of racial segregation to the forefront of American politics. A lawsuit was filed against the racial segregation laws. On June 4, 1956 the laws were determined unconstitutional. The boycott had worked in that black people were now allowed to sit wherever they wanted to on the bus. In addition, the boycott had created a new leader for the civil rights movement in Martin Luther King, Jr.
The parallel of Gandhi and Parks is but one of many that ties these movements and the communities that were born from them.
For instance, we discussed John Lewis's nonviolent protest and George Wallace's violent reaction that led to the events of what is known as Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama in March of 1965.
But are you familiar with the Amristar massacre at Jallianwala Bagh that took place 46 years earlier? In Amritsar, India’s holy city of the Sikh religion, British and Gurkha troops massacred at least 379 unarmed peaceful demonstrators meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh, a city park. Most of those killed were Indian nationalists meeting to protest the British government’s forced conscription of Indian soldiers and the heavy war tax imposed against the Indian people.
This massacre of non violent unarmed protesters is often viewed as a turning point in Gandhi's pursuit of India's independence.
Shyamala Harris was a child of the Gandhi revolution, and an active participant of the King revolution. She is now the mother of the Kamala Harris moment. A moment created in time as the progeny of the legacies of Gandhi and King, in a time when once again protests for civil rights hit the streets. When once again the Voting Rights Act is on the ballot in November. When we must ask ourselves as a people, 'will we stand up to the George Wallaces of our era?', namely Donald Trump, who openly courts the support of white nationalists, fascists, and authoritarian dictators around the world.
When the freedom fighters protested British Rule from the 1920s to 1940s, they were thought to be the trouble makers.
When John Lewis marched in Selma against the State Troopers dispatched by Wallace on Bloody Sunday, they were framed as the trouble makers.
And as protesters hit the street across the United States for social justice and equality for all, met by unmarked federal troops dispatched by Donald Trump, like those in Portland - it is the protesters that have been called domestic terrorists.
Though I can't say for sure, I can't help but think that Gandhi, King, Lewis, Parks, and Shyamala Harris would have joined the peaceful protests of today as just they did long ago.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
What if Gandhi had decided to return to India in 1893, rather than stand up for his civil rights in that South African train station?
What if there was no Gandhian lecture for Mordecai Johnson to give to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1950?
Would John Lewis still have been on the Edmund Pettus bridge or would the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s have taken a different path?
Would Shyamala Gopalan still have had the opportunity to go to Berkeley? Would she have had a peaceful protest to participate in? Would she have met her husband Donald Harris? Would there have been a Kamala Harris?
This is not to say that the credit for one movement should be attributed to another, at all. This is to say that these icons of civil rights had a choice to make and when things got tough they stood tall and fought for what was right.
Their choices had consequences and those consequences had consequences. They inspired generations they never met, and laid foundations for a future they could never have imagined.
The hit musical Hamilton tells us that who lives, who dies, and who tells your story matters in how history is shaped.
We are now at a crossroads - the same that faced the leaders we've discussed so far. Will we stand up and be counted, or go home and sulk? In 2016 not enough of us made it to the polls. 95 million eligible voters stayed home and less than 78,000 votes across 3 states gave Donald Trump the White House despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes.
On the evening of November 3rd, we will either tell the story of how we stood up to restore the moral center of our democracy from a President that sold us out to foreign authoritarian dictators and let over 170,000 Americans die from a pandemic he had no plan to stop - Or we will tell the story of how we let infighting, unwinnable purity tests, and apathy deliver another four years to a man that did nothing when foreign nations put bounties on the heads of our troops, and relished in caging immigrant children.
That story will also be the story of whether the communities that owe their fundamental right to vote in this election to Gandhi & Dr. King showed up for Kamala Devi Harris, or not. She is a daughter of both legacies and the leader we need today to ensure the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is passed into law in 2021, and to ensure that someone properly prosecutes the case against Donald J. Trump.
"Peculiar circumstances have kept Indians and American Negroes far apart. The Indians naturally recoiled from being mistaken for Negroes and having to share their disabilities. The Negroes thought of Indians as people ashamed of their race and color so that the two seldom meet. My meeting with Tagore [in 1929] helped to change this attitude and today Negroes and Indians realize that both are fighting the same great battle against the assumption of superiority made so often by the white race."
What we need to remember in this moment is that we South Asians in America have the right to vote because of Dr. King's work in the 1960s. And Dr. King's work was deeply inspired by Gandhi. Both the Black and South Asian communities need to understand that we are stronger together and Kamala Devi Harris represents the best of all of us in that regard.
What's Your Name, (wo)Man?
Kamala Devi Harris was born on October 20, 1964, in Oakland, California. She grew up going to both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. She's a child of Jamaica, India, and America and represents all that the confluence of these cultures has to offer.