Howard University Shaped Kamala Harris' Path To Political Heights Sen. Kamala Harris accepts the Democratic vice presidential nomination on Wednesday. Her education at a historically Black university seen as the center of Black intellectual life helped pave the way.

Howard University Shaped Kamala Harris' Path To Political Heights

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All right. California Senator Kamala Harris speaks tonight at the Democratic National Convention. In the weeks since Joe Biden chose her as his running mate, we've heard about Harris' upbringing as the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. We have heard less about the influence of her college years. Harris is the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to join a major party political ticket, and NPR's Juana Summers tells us about that part of her life.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: A few years before Kamala Harris announced that she would run for president, she returned to Howard University to speak to the graduating class of 2017.


KAMALA HARRIS: First, to lead and thrive, you must reject false choices. Howard taught me, and it has taught you - you can do anything, and you can do everything.

SUMMERS: Harris attended Howard in the early 1980s after attending elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., and high school in Montreal. In choosing Howard, Harris was linking herself to the legacies of a slew of prominent alumni who came before her - Stokely Carmichael and Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer Harris has said was one of her greatest heroes. Eric Easter graduated from Howard in 1983, the year after Harris moved onto campus.

ERIC EASTER: The thing about the early '80s is that you still had a sizable number of people who were the folks who we study now in civil rights, who were still very young. And Howard was the center point for that.

SUMMERS: Around the same time Harris and Easter were both at Howard, a number of descendants of civil rights icons were also on campus, like the children of Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. It was the center of Black intellectual life and full of possibility and empowerment.

EASTER: Stokely Carmichael used to walk around the dorms and talk to us. And they were just available to you, so you took it for granted that you had access to sort of the world's greatest thinkers about, you know, politics and activism.

SUMMERS: As Harris has risen through politics, she has described Howard as a place central to both her personal and political identities.

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: I know the feeling that Kamala Harris, you know, felt to say, yeah, I'm choosing to go to Howard. And I think that choice is so important to uplift.

SUMMERS: That is Stefanie Brown James, the co-founder of Collective PAC, which works around the country to get Black candidates elected. She graduated from Howard in 2004.

BROWN JAMES: It is just this mix of being able to question, being able to reveal, being able to become grounded in yourself as a Black person and then figuring out, OK, how best can I show up in this world that doesn't always want me to be my best self?

SUMMERS: Howard University was one of Harris' first stops when she announced that she would run for president last year. She faced reporters as a candidate for the first time on campus.


HARRIS: It is where I first ran for my first elected office, which was freshman class representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council at Howard University. So this is where it all began.

SUMMERS: And that was apparent all throughout the primary campaign, whether she was swaying and clapping along with a drum line as she made her entrance at the South Carolina Democratic convention...


SUMMERS: ...Or greeting a fellow Howard Bison who dropped by a restaurant just to see her.


HARRIS: We both went to Howard.


HARRIS: Oh. I was there before her.

SUMMERS: Howard alumni say that one thing unique about the Howard experience is that you know you're being evaluated on your merits rather than the color of your skin.

Howard University President Wayne Frederick.

WAYNE FREDERICK: The environment is about your excellence and your success.

SUMMERS: Erin Keith graduated from Howard in 2013. Like Harris, she went on to law school after graduation.

ERIN KEITH: When you walk across a campus where so many people look like you, where you're learning from professors who look like you and who are not ashamed of their Blackness and who are proud, you kind of shed your imposter syndrome at the door - or at the yard, for lack of a better way to put it.

SUMMERS: Keith said that Howard showed her that Blackness is not one-size-fits-all. And at her commencement speech, Harris explained that she chose her own path.


HARRIS: So the notion of rejecting false choices that Howard taught us has carried me throughout my career - first as the district attorney of San Francisco, as the attorney general of California and now as a United States senator.


SUMMERS: And as of tonight, the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Juana Summers, NPR News.


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