Commentary

A Higher Law: Rev. Curtis Harris

BY BEN RAGSDALE


The Reverend Curtis W. Harris, Sr., led an exemplary life and was arrested thirteen times.

He broke the law each time.  He pled guilty each time.  Each time but once he was convicted.  Through it all, he had the warm support of family, friends and members of his congregation.  And he counted powerful politicians among his allies.

Curtis Harris was no ordinary criminal.  He was a leader in a movement that brought America profound change.  It was Harris’ commitment to the non-violent protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which landed him in jail in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; in Albany, Georgia; and in Danville, Virginia.  

It was in these and other communities throughout the South that a handful of bold black pastors banded together as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  They formed local “Improvement Associations” and joined other activists fiercely challenging the region’s oppressive Jim Crow laws.  Their collective actions resulted in the federal legislation which eventually dismantled de jure segregation and brought equity at the ballot box.

“Everything was segregated,” said Rev. Harris in a 1991 interview, “There was so much going on which we didn’t like.  People were being stepped on.  Our action could have been violent or non-violent.  We chose the path of nonviolent direct action.”

Across the South, “the Movement” (as it was called at the grass roots) was born as black protesters used the Gandhian tactic of civil disobedience against local and state laws which enforced segregation.  These protesters pledged obedience to a “higher law” which demeaned no individual in the human species.

Harris said the Movement was about justice.  “Not every law is just.  Certainly the segregation laws were not just.  In these circumstances,” said Harris, “there have to be special people who will call into question the laws which are on the books.  Direct action was our response to great injustice.”

Already inspired by Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Harris was a local SCLC leader when the North Carolina A & T students launched their sit-ins in Greensboro.  “Some of these college students went to jail,” Harris said, “and this started a barrage of similar activity across the country.”  Harris led the drugstore lunch counter sit-ins in his native Hopewell.

The sit-ins’ appeal to a universal sense of justice quickly won public approval across the nation (and around the world) and wore down the Southern segregationists.  But the victories were not overnight.  And the costs were high.

“When we got involved in this struggle,” said Harris, “we knew there would be consequences.  We learned early on that we would have to go to jail.  People would be beaten up and some would die.  It was war.”

Blacks’ demands in the early nineteen-sixties now seem unbelievably elementary and illustrate how recently apartheid ruled this nation.  

The right to use public lunch counters, cafeterias and restaurants was just one demand.  Years after Brown v. Board of Education, the legal fight still raged to desegregate Southern schools.  Protesters demanded the elimination of segregated public restrooms (such as those in bus and train stations and in government buildings) and equal access to public parks and other recreational facilities.

Rights activists also demanded that government and business give blacks equal opportunity for employment in all job positions.  And they demanded that voter registration be easily accessible and that no one be intimidated in the exercise of their right to vote.

To some it may seem incredulous that – within the last fifty years – such fundamental things had to be “demanded,” fought for, died for.  Curtis Harris knew the truth about the basic human rights most take for granted today.  “Our society,” said Harris, “requires that you take what you need….ain’t nobody going to give you nothing!”

Sometimes people would ask Rev. Harris, how could he, as a minister – one always concerned with right and wrong – sanction the demonstrators’ unlawful conduct?  His answer was firm.  “I thought that it would not be right to obey man’s (segregationist) law when it was contrary to God’s law,” said Harris.  “God’s law said that, as human beings, we were being mistreated.  Our first commitment was to God’s law.

“Knowing that,” Harris said, “it was easy for us to deal with man’s law.  You see, man is generally not just.  Also, man is cruel.  God is never cruel!”

At this point in the interview, Rev. Harris spoke with emotion.  He summed up the practical theology from which the Movement’s leaders gained their spiritual sustenance.  “In our struggles,” Harris says, “we were faced with cruelty on a daily basis.  The segregation laws, themselves inhuman, were enforced with police dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses.  These things were used to beat us down.

“But because we were doing what was just,” said Harris, “the authorities could not stop us.”

Ben Ragsdale is retired from program management in several nonprofit organizations and remains a volunteer human-rights advocate. Contact him at benragsdale@verizon.net.

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