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Patricia Roberts Harris was born and raised in a working-class suburb of Chicago, Illinois. She accepted a scholarship from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where in 1943 she participated in one of the country's first student sit-ins, at a whites-only cafeteria in a black neighborhood. She later attended law school at Washington's George Washington University, from which she graduated first in her class. In 1961, she joined the faculty of Howard Law School.

A lifelong member of the Democratic Party, Harris served on several federal commissions concerned with minority rights. In 1965, largely on the strength of this work, President Johnson appointed her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. After a brief and noncontroversial posting, she returned to Howard in 1967 and in 1969 was named dean of the law school Immediately after her appointment students protested for greater power in university decisions Harris took a strong ...