Civil Rights Tour: Employment - Ruth Bates Harris, Whistle Blower for Equality

1218 E Street NE

Ruth Bates Harris (1919-2004) is most remembered for blowing the whistle on NASA’s discriminatory hiring practices in the early 1970s. NASA hired her as an equal opportunity officer in 1971, but two years later it fired her for releasing a scathing report that called the agency's minority hiring program "a near-total failure," and ranked NASA well below other government offices and private companies in its employment of non-whites and women. According to the report, just 5.19% of NASA employees were minorities, with most in low-level clerical positions, compared to 20% in the whole federal government. Her firing led to Congressional hearings in January 1974; she was rehired that August.

Years earlier, Harris worked for the Washington Urban League, before joining the staff of the Council on Human Relations in 1961 and taking over as director three years later. The Council, a city agency, was charged with defending District residents against discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas, but it was provided only a tiny staff and minimal budget to investigate and resolve discrimination complaints.

Harris focused her efforts on discriminatory policing and in November 1967 persuaded the DC City Council to hold public hearings on the topic. Young Black men and antipoverty activists testified and demanded action, but the Council was not empowered to intervene. (Prior to the passage of DC's Home Rule Act five years later, the presidentially appointed Mayor and Council had no say over the police department.) When Black leaders demanded community control of the police department after a series of police shootings in the summer of 1968, Harris commented, "We have always had community control. The problem is that it has been white community control." Facing continued opposition in Congress to desegregating the police department or other agencies, Harris took a new job as the Montgomery County Schools director of human relations in 1969.

Harris lived at 1218 E Street NE.