By Jim Barber
(Barber is author of the 2019 novel Plowed Fields, a story of life in the rural South in the 1960s.)
December 31, 2020
It’s been a hard, harsh year in America. Seems like literally everyone has found a reason to feel put upon and the idea of sacrificing our own self-interests for the sake of someone else feels like a washed-up joke from a bygone time.
And yet, it’s a life of sacrifice that I find myself pondering on this last day of 2020.
Put aside your thoughts and feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement for a moment and consider the story of Henry Harris. In 1968, Harris became the first African-American to receive a basketball or football scholarship not only at Auburn University but at any of the seven Deep South Schools in the Southeastern Conference.
It was a hard road Harris traveled during four years at Auburn and his story is now told in the book, Remember Henry Harris: Lost Icon of a Revolution: A Story of Hope and Self-Sacrifice in America.
Written by Sam Heys, a former sportswriter and speechwriter, Remember Henry Harris is the most important, compelling and heartbreaking book I’ve read in recent years.
Race is an incredibly complicated issue in America, but only the hardest of hearts would dispute the mistreatment, vilification and indifference endured by blacks in the Old South. Before the Old South could transform into the New South, someone had to be the “first,” and being first meant swimming through a pressure cooker of expectations, demands and responsibility with no room for mistakes. Harris did that on the basketball court at Auburn and in the gyms at colleges throughout the South, enduring slurs and threats, while playing a tough, selfless and resilient game that eventually earned him grudging respect.
This is not a feel-good story. That’s clear from the first paragraph.
Harris was 18 and full of hope when he enrolled at Auburn. He was 24 and broken when he jumped out the window of a high-rise dormitory room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1974.
Remember Henry Harris fills in the details of what transpired in the intervening years, how optimism grew into despair. But more importantly, it’s the story of how a boy soldiered on, following the rules and trying to be the man everyone expected him to be—until the weight of it all became more than he could bear.
Feel-good, it may not be, but what makes Remember Henry Harris great is the hope this young man made possible for others. His is a uniquely American story, one of loss and sacrifice to be sure but also as inspiring and courageous as any other great American story.
I challenge you to read it and consider what could have been and what still should be.