The following book review of Remember Henry Harris was published this month in “Veritas in Alabama,” a newsletter of the Harvard Club of Birmingham. It is written by Charlie Marlin, Harvard Class of 1972.
By Charlie Marlin, AB 1972
People who were late adolescents or young adults during the 1960s are over seventy years old now, which means that the vast majority of Americans have no first-hand knowledge of the civil rights era. For most, those times have become Velveeta history, blended and homogenized into a smooth narrative in which a wave of black discontent broke through white resistance and ushered in a new age of racial harmony. Or not. Maybe they have an image of partial success, the crest of a wave that then subsided. The popular view, albeit in various forms, has become an impression – broad, general, and vague.
So it is timely that Sam Heys brings out Remember Henry Harris. It is not a smoothed history. It is a lumpy, gritty, personal report with actual names, real people, and specific events. Heys spent decades patiently interviewing the people of this story, many of whom did not want to recall it. They said those times are gone, good riddance, let’s not open old wounds. But Heys, who is a counselor as well as a writer, persisted. He helped them expose the old hurt and gain some catharsis. He tells a story that needs to be told.
Henry Harris grew up in Boligee, Alabama. Although geographically not far from Tuscaloosa, in the 1960s it was socially another world. Heys describes how Harris, a gifted basketball player, was recruited by several colleges. He would become the first American of African heritage to receive an athletic scholarship to a Deep South school in the Southeastern Conference. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, that fact seems remote and unremarkable. But Heys shows how significant it was in 1968. Along the way he describes the movement of regional politics – tectonic plates grinding against each other and shaking individual lives. Politics and race and sports.
The book is difficult to read, not because of the writing, but because it brings us face to face with the human evil that thrives among us. At times, it is a morbid and discouraging tale. How could people be that cruel? But they were, and Heys presents the evidence without flinching. A more polemical author might have indulged this thread exclusively. But Heys is an honest reporter, so he also gives examples of heroism, valor, and ordinary deeds with extraordinary effects.
Heys is a sports writer. He is not strictly limited to that genre, but it is his first love. Remember Henry Harris includes an abundance of scores, margins of victory, and season records, as well as numbers of field goals, rebounds, and assists. Some readers may find these details tedious. But the accumulation of facts is necessary to make evident that Harris had unique athletic talents. They are important to demonstrate the role of sports in America, especially in the racial-tribal Southern society of the 1960s. How does a young man whose high school basketball team was all black fit in with a college team that was all white? How does an 18-year-old handle living alone in a dormitory? What sustains Henry Harris when he receives death threats? How many times can he hear an anonymous voice from the arena crowd say, “We’re gonna kill you!” and not scurry back home to Boligee? Harris clearly had unique talents beyond athletics.
The manner in which Henry Harris and others asserted their dignity should inspire us. It brings a measure of hope to this story and to anyone whose faith in humanity has been damaged. Remember Henry Harris holds a lesson for all time: some few are willing to face down evil, even if they have to sacrifice everything.