Before Curtis Harris marched with Martin Luther King Jr. or became the first black mayor of Hopewell, he worked as a janitor for 15 years at a chemical company.
It was the best job he could get as a black man, even though he went to two years of college, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He eventually sued the company for discrimination and won — one of many civil rights victories Mr. Harris had in his life.
He faced further challenges, like being arrested 13 times at sit-ins, protesting against segregation and losing seven elections for City Council in Hopewell.
But he persevered, never conceding when fighting for what he thought was right. That’s how two Peninsula activists remember Mr. Harris — fighting and overcoming the challenges he faced.
“His story is that it doesn’t matter where you start — it’s about your vision and how you can help others,” said Andrew Shannon, president of the Peninsula Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mr. Harris died in Hopewell on Dec. 10. He was 93.
After losing seven elections, Mr. Harris was elected to the Hopewell City Council in 1986 and became the city’s first black mayor in 1998. He served on the council until 2012.
Marcellus Harris Jr., a longtime pastor and community activist in Newport News, called on Mr. Harris to help advocate for Allen Iverson — then an 18-year-old star athlete who was convicted of mob violence after a racially divided fight at a bowling alley.
The two men asked the governor for a pardon for Iverson, and the governor granted clemency, getting Iverson out of jail and giving him a chance to play basketball in Georgetown and become an NBA hall-of-famer. Iverson’s convictions were eventually overturned.
“There was nobody more experienced and committed to civil rights than Curtis Harris,” Marcellus Harris said. Marcellus Harris recalled that people thought they were brothers because they were so frequently together and shared a last name.
“We were brothers in civil rights,” Marcellus Harris said. “When I needed him, he came.”
Mr. Harris was a longtime leader in the SCLC going back to when King founded the organization, and he came to the Peninsula to help whenever he was asked, Shannon said.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Harris came to Newport News to march with Shannon, who had grievances with the city over hiring. Mr. Harris had just had a stroke and was still recovering, so Shannon was surprised he came down to vouch for him.
Shannon remembered Mr. Harris providing copies of his speech to reporters because he couldn’t speak clearly, but everyone still hung onto his words as he spoke.
“He’s brought national and state leaders to Newport News,” Shannon said. “I say, ‘Curtis Harris is with me,’ people would come.”
Some of those people included the King family, who were friends with Mr. Harris. Shannon said Mr. Harris marched with King during dangerous times, sometimes acting as a shield for the civil rights leader. Notably, he marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., for voting rights.
“I never knew Dr. King, but through Curtis Harris, I processed the magnitude of Dr. King’s work,” Shannon said.
Marcellus Harris said that not everything Mr. Harris did got spotlight or media attention, but he was always fighting for something.
Mr. Harris’ funeral was Monday in Hopewell’s First Baptist Church.
Mr. Harris is survived by six children, 23 grandchildren, 32 great -grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren, along with a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.