On January 20, 2021, amidst political turmoil and civil unrest, Kamala D. Harris makes history as she is sworn in as the first female, first African American, and first Asian American vice president of the United States.
In her first speech as vice president, delivered shortly after she is sworn into office, Harris says:
“In many ways this moment embodies our character as a nation. It demonstrates who we are, even in dark times. We not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be. We shoot for the moon and then we plant our flag on it. We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up…
“American aspiration is what drove the women of this nation throughout history to demand equal rights and the authors of the Bill of Rights to claim freedoms that had rarely been written down before. A great experiment takes great determination. The will to do the work and then the wisdom to keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting.”
Born in Oakland in 1964, Harris spends her early years in the epicenter of civil disobedience on the West Coast. Her parents, immigrants from Jamaica and India, meet as University of California at Berkeley graduate students. Growing up, Harris and her sister Maya have a “stroller’s eye-view” of the civil rights movement, accompanying their parents to student protests as children.
The movement impacts Harris directly. In 1970, she is one of the first African American students to attend a desegregated public school in Berkeley when she is bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School.
Harris’s parents later divorce and her mother, a breast cancer researcher, moves the family to Montreal. Harris graduates from high school in Canada and attends Howard University, known as the “Mecca” of historically Black universities. After graduating, Harris returns to the Bay Area and receives her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1989.
Harris starts her legal career as a prosecutor in the Alameda County courthouse office, where a portrait of Earl Warren—who once served as Alameda County District Attorney and Attorney General of California—adorns the wall. As Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Warren wrote the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which opened the door for Harris to attend a desegregated public school.
Harris reflects on this symbolism in later years, as she is elected District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003 and Attorney General of California in 2010. She is the first African American and the first female to hold either position.
In the 2016 General Election, Harris beats fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez to become California’s third female United States senator — and the state’s first African American senator. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Harris garners national attention for her grilling of witnesses and nominees.
In yet another “first,” Harris becomes the first African American woman on a major party’s presidential ticket when President Biden selects her as his running mate in August 2020. The campaign is contentious and the results contested, but Biden is eventually declared the winner – and Harris makes California and United States history.