In the foreboding dark days when the Nazis were rolling through Europe and the Japanese were building ships of war and slaughtering neighbors, a hero arose from the thin pages of an American comic book. He came to slay evil, to vanquish villains. It was 1941, and he was hope for a threatened nation. He was Captain America.
Three decades later, for black Americans sitting by radios across Alabama, for the black custodians and groundskeepers huddled at the corner of the court, and for all the people who needed him and had awaited him so long, Henry Harris—his black skin stark in Auburn’s white-white uniform—was Captain America. He had come to slay the notion of white superiority, and like Robinson, Owens, and Louis, would shoulder the dreams and validation of a race, as the struggle for freedom through sports marched on.
Harris was the tip of a spear heaved by his forebears—the kings and queens his mom talked about, all the slaves who had lived and died between them and him, the field hands who persevered in the South for decades, waiting for a chance to prove themselves. It was as if they had ushered him out of the cotton fields, a basketball in hand, to meet this appointed hour. He was an ideal face of the revolution because he represented the abject rural poverty that had imprisoned blacks across the Deep South. He was the Old South. But he symbolized African Americans’ ability to compete with whites on a level playing field, and thereby, in life itself. He was a young black man playing free on a basket-ball court in Alabama with young white men—no wonder he was always smiling. It might have been just a basketball game to his teammates, but Harris was playing the enemy every game. A year into the experiment, he knew what was at stake. The South needed him. America needed him, especially at Auburn, deep in the Heart of Dixie, where some children had grown up and never heard a positive word about a black American, a family tradition shoved down through the ages. Harris was taking all that on, changing one mind at a time with his composure and competitive-ness, possibly transforming a family for generations forward. By applauding Harris, Auburn fans did not have to take a stand on school desegregation or interracial dating. They were just cheering their team, their guys. Using his God-given talent, work ethic, and countenance, Harris enabled southerners to see what black and white cooperation looked like.
By simply wearing the Auburn uniform five times during the first fifteen days of December 1969, standing side-by-side with white players, Harris became part of history. Not only the history he was making, but all the history that had gone on so long. Au-burn history, significant southern cultural history. The uniform did that. When black Americans marched to war for their country in the 1940s, their uniforms were more celebrated by black communities than by the soldiers and sailors themselves. They were a badge of being good enough, of making the team. On April 15, 1947, before his first game in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson stood looking at himself in the mirror, looking to see if the uniform fit, really fit. It was a challenging view even for him to accept. Now, a basketball uniform that had excluded, embodying racial purity, suddenly included. Henry Harris, in Auburn navy and orange, was the New South.
Excerpted from Remember Henry Harris: Lost Icon of a Revolution, opening of Chapter 17, pages 128-129