I did not catch the man’s name over the weekend. I wish I had because I will long remember what he said—“Henry Harris changed me.” He was not the first person to tell me that.
The man told me, somewhat embarrassingly, “I was a kid growing up in Birmingham with all sorts of crazy thoughts.” He was sixty-something, so he had been there for all the bombing and water hoses and venom.
Growing up, the man had great love—Auburn University, especially its football and basketball teams. Then, suddenly, at the end of the 1960s, Auburn had a hustling, talented black basketball player in its starting lineup. How could he not like Henry Harris? Harris, after all, was now part of Auburn and all it represented.
Sports can do that. Change people’s minds.
A half-century after Henry Harris transformed his thinking, the man and his wife were back in Auburn, attending a program celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of athletic integration at Auburn and buying a book, Remember Henry Harris, about the integration of the entire Southeastern Conference. Harris was a key player in changing not only Auburn but also the SEC.
Children of the 1950s and 1960s could conceivably grow up in the Deep South and never hear a positive word about a black American, a family tradition shoved down through the ages. Harris took all that on, changing one mind at a time with his composure and competitiveness, possibly transforming a family for generations forward. By applauding Harris, Auburn fans did not have to take a stand on school desegregation. They were just cheering their team, their guys.
The basketball uniform did that. A navy blue and orange uniform that had excluded black Americans suddenly included Henry Harris. Sports can do that.