Long before she became a lawyer, a prosecutor, an attorney general and a groundbreaking U.S. senator, Kamala Harris was a young thinker, dreamer and doer at Howard University.
“Howard is where I first ran for office as a freshman,” Harris, 52, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “I remember walking up to people on campus asking for their votes.”
Last November, Harris became only the second African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in history, representing her native California.
Today in the nation’s capital, she came home to her alma mater, delivering the commencement keynote address at one of America’s oldest, most storied Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) founded in 1867. Harris accepted the President’s Medal of Achievement, one of several women honored by the institution during the ceremony.
For this daughter of what students and alumni proudly refer to as “The Mecca”—returning to the college that was an incubator for her intellectual, political and social evolution is a full circle experience.
“They asked me to do it and I was more than honored. It’s a homecoming,” said Harris, who graduated from Howard in 1986, before earning a law degree from University of California, Hastings College.
“A few things have impacted my life: my incredible mother and extended family and attending this school,” she said.
With her husband Doug Emhoff, sister Maya Harris and other family members and friends looking on, the Senator offered the Class of 2017 words of wisdom touching on those themes. The speech—about 30 minutes—was at turns both passionate and poignant.
“You are graduating into a very different time than it was when you arrived a few short years ago. You are graduating into a time when we see a revival of the failed War on Drugs and a renewed reliance on mandatory minimum prison sentences,” she said. “A time when young people who were brought to America as children fear a midnight knock on the door.”
“A time when throwing millions of working people off their health insurance to give tax breaks to the top 1 percent is considered a victory to some. A time when we worry that a late-night tweet could start a war. A time when we no longer believe the words of some of our leaders, and where the very integrity of our justice system has been called into question.”
“Indeed we have a fight ahead,” said the Senator. “And it’s not a fight between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not rich versus poor or urban versus rural. It’s a fight to define what kind of country we are. It’s a fight to determine what kind of country we will be. And it’s a fight to determine whether we are willing to stand up for our deepest values. Because let’s be clear—we are better than this.”
A native of Oakland, Harris is the eldest daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who met in graduate school and were Civil Rights activists and intellectuals.
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