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Harris smiling at camera with piles of papers on table in background
Patricia Harris pictured in 1965, as the new U.S. ambassador to Luxemburg. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Boundary Crossing for a Better Future: Pauli Murray, Patricia Roberts Harris, and the 1982 Mayoral Election in the District of Columbia

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“Democracy demands inclusion in ways that are both symbolic and concrete,” journalist Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her social history of Go-Go, a local music genre unique to Washington D.C.[1] Inclusion for Black Washingtonians, however, often required the crossing of boundaries, racial and otherwise. Few events in the city’s history illustrate this process like the 1982 Democratic mayoral primary, which in largely liberal Washington operates as the de facto campaign for the office. For African American leaders like Patricia Roberts Harris, one of the candidates in that primary race, and Pauli Murray, her unofficial campaign advisor, “success” often came only after failure. Harris’s loss in the campaign arguably paved the way for future electoral victories by other African American women.

The 1960s served as a proving ground for Black leaders in the city by establishing their credentials with working- and middle-class Washingtonians to address the city’s racial inequalities. For many Black Washingtonians, Marion Barry had that credibility. He arrived in the capital in June 1965 to lead the D.C. office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and immediately set out to make the organization “a player in local politics.” With SNCC, Barry won significant victories and gave voice to working-class and poor voters who had been excluded politically for decades.[2]

In their political history of Washington, D.C., Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood describe the 1982 Democratic mayoral primary between incumbent Marion Barry and challenger Patricia Robert Harris as a battle between the city’s working class and its Black bourgeoisie. The former, they argue, was represented by Barry and the latter by Harris, who had previously served as a cabinet member in the Jimmy Carter administration.[3]

Barry leaned on that reputation in his 1982 campaign and deployed the power of incumbency. “There is no better qualification for being mayor than having been mayor,” he told reporters.[4] Winning office in 1978 with a biracial coalition and based, in part, on his accomplishments with SNCC, he spent his first term courting the city’s Black ministers and the Black middle class, the latter by building up city employment rolls. “Patronage is good politics,” his campaign manager Ivanhoe Donaldson told journalists. Barry and his surrogates also made repeated references to race and class. “He used race effectively to paint Harris – light-skinned, refined, and with impeccable credentials – as not black enough,” write historians Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove.[5]

Harris kicked off her own mayoral campaign in front of 500 supporters at her K Street campaign headquarters. Its failure, according to Jaffe and Sherwood, was due to Harris’s aloofness with the public, a thin local resume, and her apparent absence from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. For many Black voters, they argued, Harris hadn’t paid her dues.[6] But while scholars have been largely correct in their assessment of the forces driving Harris’s defeat, they’ve also tended to ignore gender and the role of intersectionality, the notion that people experience discrimination through overlapping identities.

Correspondence between Harris and Pauli Murray in the Patricia Robert Harris Papers, located in the Manuscript Division, show the ways race, gender, and class intertwined during Washington’s 1982 mayoral election. They tell a revealing story about intersectionality, a term legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw wouldn’t coin until 1989, but which Murray and Harris had already lived for decades.

Murray, who publicly identified as a woman and cofounded the National Organization for Women, privately identified as a “he/she personality.” Murray viewed gender boundaries with “profound uncertainty.” Attempts to deconstruct them often resulted in severe “anguish” but also led to some of Murray’s “most significant insights throughout her life,” historian Rosalind Rosenberg notes.[7]

Harris and Murray met during the 1940s at Howard University where both were members of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority whose membership also included Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Mary Church Terrell.

Typewritten letter from Harris to Murray with handwritten note at bottom
Patricia Harris to Pauli Murray, March 22, 1982. Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Murray, a law student at Howard, served as a mentor to the younger, undergraduate Harris. In 1943, Murray led a group of Howard students, which included Harris, on a campaign to desegregate local diners and restaurants near the school.[8]  When Harris reached out to Murray in March 1982 for Murray’s support, she scribbled a short note at the bottom appealing for Murray’s help in “this enterprise” which she believed to be as consequential “to D.C. as our 1943 sit-in.”[9]

Both Murray and Harris had carved out successful careers despite the discrimination that defined the era. Murray was an enormously important legal theorist, poet, feminist, civil rights leader, and theologian, nearly always ahead of the curve. Yet Murray remained a somewhat obscure figure to the larger public. Murray’s “lifelong fate,” noted the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz in 2017, was “to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes.”[10]

Harris enjoyed her own groundbreaking career. She became the first Black woman ambassador in 1965 and the first to serve in the cabinet when Jimmy Carter named her secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1976. Harris later headed Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), which was renamed Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1980.[11]

From June through September 1982, Murray functioned as an unofficial advisor to the Harris campaign, providing political strategy and moral support, and wrangling donations from supporters, including the formidable network of Deltas. Murray believed that even in defeat, Harris could force Barry into being a better mayor, “having been challenged on merit and having raised the voters’ expectations,” by the quality of her campaign.[12]

One of Murray’s main tactics was to put pressure on media outlets like the New York Times and journalists such as the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory, Dorothy Gilliam, and Meg Greenfield.  “I’m troubled that the NYT . . .  has given so little coverage to the important D.C. Mayoralty Democratic Primary race,” Murray wrote to the Times. “It seems to me much more coverage was given to Andy Young’s race for Mayor of Atlanta. (I’m not charging gender discrimination – I’m raising the question).”[13]

In late August, McGrory lamented the downward trajectory of the Harris campaign, noting it appeared “plagued by deserters.” Many of the men who professed to support Harris disappeared once the race began. “When [Harris] asked for explanations . . . she got back mumbles about ‘not rejecting male black leadership.’” Murray wrote McGrory reminding her of “how few Negro/black women of high calibre (sic) have survived national politics . . . I think it may have been the added pressure of fighting a subtle sexism not only with respect to white males but particularly the more deadly intra-group variety of black male sexism.”[14] To Harris, Murray decried coverage of the race in both newspapers. “I drove around by myself weeping for you and for all Negro/black women.”[15]

Just days before the election, columnist Dorothy Gilliam, the newspaper’s first Black woman journalist and a fellow Delta, wrote that “gender has not been an issue in the campaign,” but concluded by informing readers that Harris had said her life would have been different had she and her husband had children. “Such an ordinary admission from such an extraordinary woman,” Gilliam commented, adding that had Harris been as revealing about her personal life during the campaign, the race might be closer, especially with women voters. Yet, despite her own examples, Gilliam maintained gender had not played a role in the race.[16]

A drawing of a peanut shaped pool with "Poolside with Pat" as the title, ephemera from Patricia Roberts Harris mayoral campaign in 1982. Box 370, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Cover of invite to Patricia Roberts Harris campaign fundraiser event, August 1982. Box 370, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In a scathing letter to Gilliam, Murray disagreed. If gender had not been a part of the campaign, it was not because it failed to influence the race but rather because the media had failed to “recognize [it] . . . as one of the many complex interlocking and overlapping issues and forces at play here.”[17] Sexism, Murray argued, had played a significant role. Black women proved themselves in spite of the barriers before them only to be subject to the egos of white men and “those Black males who have unconsciously relied upon their so-called masculinity to give them superior status.” Murray accorded incumbent Marion Barry respect for doing a solid job in his first term, acknowledging his numerous appointments of women to positions within his administration. But Murray also noted Barry too had succumbed to “macho” posturing during the campaign such as when he bragged to the media about impregnating his wife while on vacation in Vermont.[18]

Judging from her media coverage, Harris understood the unfortunate realities of gender in the campaign. Having gained a reputation as an “able” but “harsh” administrator, she attempted to soften her edges for the voting public. In a Washington Post profile published a week before the election, Harris emphasized her mother’s femininity, beauty, and practicality, “an extraordinarily feminine person and yet she can repair an iron, wrap a package, and fix an electrical outlet.” Harris then proudly noted her bedroom had achieved the same fragrance of that of her mother’s, “perfumey (sic) and just very pleasant.”[19]

In the end, Barry won almost 60 percent of the vote and transformed his base from a biracial coalition to a cross-class Black alliance. Barry had consolidated the city’s African American vote; Harris won only the predominantly white Ward 3.[20]

Tragically, both Murray and Harris passed away from cancer just three years later; Harris in March 1985 and Murray in July. In a campaign letter to Harris, Murray had joked about sporting a solid “batting average on prophecy.” After all, Murray’s many accomplishments had included inspiring the legal approach to desegregation that won the day in Brown v. the Board of Education and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s deconstruction of sexism in the law. Murray might have been wrong about the Harris campaign producing a more responsible Barry administration, but that was a minor miscalculation particularly since Murray did offer this startling prediction. “[T]he first Vice President of color will be a woman and the first woman elected to the Vice Presidency will be a woman of color.” Granted, Murray envisioned Patricia Harris or Shirley Chisholm in that role, but Murray’s prophecy was proven correct in 2020 with the election of Kamala Harris. Efforts such as Patricia Harris’s 1982 campaign contributed to such an outcome.

Murray had always been ahead of the curve, and in her own way, Harris as well. Sharon Pratt Dixon, Harris’s campaign manager in 1982, won the mayoralty in 1990, becoming the city’s first woman mayor and the first African American woman mayor in the nation, both distinctions Harris had sought eight years earlier. As Murray, a person inherently skeptical of boundaries knew well, traversing them was a taxing enterprise and often success was preceded by failures. “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be ‘I survived.” Both Harris and Murray accomplished far more than survival.[21]

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[1] Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 157.

[2] Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 342-44.

[3] Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington D.C. (New York: Argo-Navis, 2014), 151-155.

[4] Mary McGrory, “The Draft-Harris Movement Appears Plagued by Deserters,” Washington Post, August 26, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Myers Asch and Musgrove, Chocolate City, 399.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 17.

[8] Harry McAlpin, “Howard Students Picket Jim Crow Restaurant,” Chicago Defender, April 24, 1943, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Patricia Harris to Pauli Murray, letter, March 22, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] Kathryn Schulz, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” New Yorker, April 10, 2017.

[11] Juan Williams, “Patricia R. Harris Dies at 60,” Washington Post, March 24, 1985. At both posts, Harris had been careful to appoint higher percentages of women and minorities. During her tenure at HUD, 50 percent of her appointees were women, and 28 percent were African American or Latino/a. At HHS, nearly 70 percent of her appointees were women and non-white.

[12] Pauli Murray, memorandum to Pat Harris for Mayor Committee, September 9, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Pauli Murray to Mr. Franklin, letter, August 30, 1982, New York Times, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Pauli Murray to Mary McGrory, letter, August 26, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] Pauli Murray to Patricia Roberts Harris, letter, August 29, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Dorothy Gilliam, “Gender,” Washington Post, September 11, 1982.

[17] Pauli Murray to Dorothy Gilliam, letter, September 14, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[18] Ibid.; Pauli Murray to Patricia Roberts Harris, letter, August 18, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[19] Eric Pianin, “Patricia Harris: A Life of Striving to be a Champion,” Washington Post, September 7, 1982, Box 372, Patricia Harris Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[20] Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City, 400.

[21] Pauli Murray in Kathryn Schulz, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” New Yorker, April 10, 2017.

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