NORMAN — A tourist who happened to wander inside the Kerr Auditorium at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Friday afternoon missed the introduction but caught the tail end of Fred Harris’ lecture.
“What’s he running for?” the man asked. “He’s not. He’s already done that,” another said. “But he ought to run again.”
Fred Harris, the former Senator, presidential candidate and chairman of the Democratic National Committe, sounded more like a retreaded presidential candidate than an 83-year-old retired academic. He delivered the Josh Lee Lecture, a biennial lecture that honors the former U.S. Senator and college professor from Oklahoma.
Harris’ style of new populism, which branded him in the 1960s and 1970s, found an audience mostly in agreement. The lecture is funded by Lee’s daughter, Mary Louise Symcox of Norman.
Harris spoke of the nation’s growing income inequality, corporate welfare, union and small farmer weakness and the modern Democratic party. He sounded almost optimistic when reciting recent economic gains.
“I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic,” he said. “There is an existential value in the struggle itself and each of us must do what we can.”
Harris’ life itself is one of the underdog turned optimist. Born dirt poor to a family of progressive Democrats in Walters, OK, he attended the University of Oklahoma and received a law degree. He was a printer on the student newspaper and one of the few non-journalism graduates to be honored by the journalism program.
He began practicing law in Lawton and was elected to the state Senate on a reform ticket in 1956. In 1964 Harris defeated former governor J. Howard Edmondson, and then legendary football coach and Norman resident Bud Wilkinson to fill Robert S. Kerr’s unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. He was re-elected in 1966 and served until 1973.