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Author's blog

'Henry Harris changed me'

 

 

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 itrepresented.

 

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.

 

 

Publication Comes During Suicide Prevention Week

 

September 16, 2019

 

It was simple happenstance that Remember Henry Harris was published last week during National Suicide Prevention Week. However, it was a poignant coincidence.

 

Increased awareness can help prevent suicides, but too often in past decades, we as a society have preferred not to talk about this stigmatized subject.

 

One of the factors affecting awareness is how quickly society often writes off or forgets those who kill themselves. Suicide seems to land its victims in the penalty box of history. That was certainly the case for Henry Harris after he died in 1974 at age twenty-four. As a result, his mother, brothers, sister, and other family members were left in the dark, not only unsure what exactly had happened to Henry some 800 miles away but also with few people to talk to about the tragedy or their loss. And because Harris died by suicide, his courageous achievements for Auburn and for black Americans were soon forgotten.

 

In an author research interview for Remember Henry Harris, William B. Lawson, a retired Howard University psychiatry professor who has studied suicide, said research has shown that many people who decide to kill themselves are ambivalent. He cited a study of individuals who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. "Most of them said that halfway down to the water they had changed their mind," Lawson said.

 

"We also have found that many suicide victims had contacted family or friends or professionals within a month before it happened. So if family and friends could recognize what is going on, we could implement an intervention that could make a difference, but often they are uncomfortable even discussing it," he said.

 

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) offers these resources:

- If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately.
- If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)