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Remember Henry Harris by Sam Heys

02/22/2021

"Henry Harris's story deserves to be both told and remembered."
                                              -- Alabama Public Radio
It was after the freedom rides ended, after the bus boycotts and sit-ins, the marches and protests, and long after the TV cameras and federal marshals had packed up and gone home. It was 1968 and the spring Martin Luther King was murdered - only two weeks after speaking at a rally in Greene County.

It was an extraordinary time, and Henry Harris decided to make his life matter by going to Auburn University - to become the first black athlete scholarship there or at any SEC school in the Deep South. He was the seeming quintessential candidate for integration, but nothing could have prepared him for the next four years. Fourteen years after Brown v. Board, he still had not sat in a classroom with a white person.

Sam Heys's curiosity about Harris's life peaked the night in 1974 that he ripped an article from a newswire printer and read four paragraphs reporting Harris's suicide. The details were scarce, and the story was missing all the "whys." Heys fills in the facts, answers the questions, and traces Harris's incredible passage from living in an abandoned store in tiny Boligee, Alabama, to dying on a rooftop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - a journey that helped revolutionize the South and America.

Harris was only eighteen, a country boy who had never left home. If he embodied hope to some, he was a harbinger of dreaded change to others. He knew if he misstepped, integration would stall. He was a young man carrying a grown man's responsibility, trying every day to do the right thing, trying to make not only his family but a whole race proud.

For four years, Harris went one-on-one with racism - the Old South colliding with a New South in the life of one brave young man out of Alabama's Black Belt. Every night he stepped onto the court for Auburn he was challenging the hardened, dogged beliefs of a centuries-old civilization. Harris would blow up all of the era's stereotypes with a dignity and courage that could have made Jackie Robinson proud. And when he had played out his role, he exited the stage, dead at twenty-four.

Henry Harris helped drag the South into tomorrow. Basketball in hand, he marched forward when his state and country needed him. You cannot change what you will not confront, so someone had to stare down old Jim Crow. The assignment was more grueling than Harris could have imagined when he graduated from Greene County Training School, the script bigger than he and the other pioneers of southern sport could ever dream. They were pawns in an epic and historical drama, sport's ultimate role players. Their assignment was to kick down a heavily guarded gate to fair play and the American dream, and their stories must not slip into obscurity.

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