I had spotted the lunch counter and the row of high stools when we walked into Kresge’s that spring morning of 1956. Mom grabbed my shoulder and moved me through the store before I could say anything.
Then, maybe ten minutes later, we headed back toward the lunch counter. No one was sitting on any of the stools, so I raced in front of Mom and my brother Fred and grabbed the first one. Mom and Fred, not noticing me, walked over to the side of the counter and ordered sodas for us.
The stool was the kind that swung around, so I twirled two or three times. “Hey, Fred! Look at me!” I looked at Mom and smiled.
Mom didn’t smile back. “Get off there, Larry Harris,” she said.
I stared at her, wondering why she didn’t want me to sit there. If several people had been around, I wouldn’t have grabbed a stool. Our parents had taught us to stand up when adults were present. The lunch counter was empty.
“Why, Mom?” I asked.
The saddest expression swept across her face. I’m sure now the change happened in a fleeting second, but I can’t forget the pain that filled her eyes.
I’ll also never forget that experience.
I was six years old the day Mom drove Fred and me into the business section of Fayetteville, North Carolina. I don’t remember why we went, although I assume we shopped for clothes. Otherwise, she would have bought everything on the army base at Fort Bragg.
Fred, who was a year older, was probably more excited about going than I was. For us to drive all the way into Fayetteville and walk through the large department stores was a great adventure. To make it an even more exciting trip, Mom promised that we could each have a soda before we went home—a real treat for us.
Mom had a list of things to buy, and for maybe two hours we were in and out of stores such as Belk and Sears. I had never seen so many people rushing and walking around. We were a Black family, and I’d been around Whites all my life, but mostly at the army base. That day, however, White people seemed to be everywhere.
Mom bought things in several stores, and then she said, “Just one more place, boys, and you can have that soda I promised.”
That’s when we walked into Kresge’s—long before it became known as Kmart. Mom bought what she wanted. Then I knew what came next: a soft drink. That’s when I rushed ahead and grabbed a stool.
“Get down,” she repeated and walked right over to me. “You—you just can’t sit there,” she said.
She grabbed both my arms and pulled me off the stool.
I stared at her, unable to understand.
Mom took a deep breath and said in a low voice, “Those stools are for White people.” Then she pulled me close and held me. The hug seemed to last a long time before she released me. “You’re just as good as any White man, Larry. It’s just the way the laws are.”
I don’t remember all the words she said after that. She wasn’t angry, and her voice remained calm. “The law isn’t right, but that’s how things are.”
“I’m sorry, Mom—”
“You don’t have to be sorry. They’re the ones who don’t know any better. Besides, you didn’t understand, but here’s something I do want you to remember: Your name is Harris. It’s a good name, and that means you are as good as anybody else in the world. Your skin color doesn’t matter; what’s inside you is what counts. So just think of this. Your name is Harris, and don’t you forget that.”
I never did forget. Of all the lessons we learned in our home—and we learned many—it became one of the most valuable.
That experience forced me to grasp reality in a way I hadn’t before. Maybe Mom and Dad had sheltered us too much. Maybe it was because Dad was a career army man and we didn’t see what went on around us. Maybe I had been too young to comprehend the obvious.
I can say this for all nine of the children of Fred and Ruth Harris: We have honored that name. We had our share of temptations like anyone else, but we have held true to what they taught us.
I know that we didn’t want to hurt Mom or Dad. If any of us had ever gotten into trouble, we knew that our actions would have disappointed and hurt our parents.
When my sister Mabel was in high school, she started to hang out with the wrong crowd. Our folks never told her she couldn’t have them as friends, but they made her aware of the consequences. “You go with them,” Dad said, “and you become like them.”
“You’ll compromise your principles,” Mom said. “You won’t lift up your friends, honey. They’ll drag you down.”
“Mom, they just want to have fun,” Mabel protested.
Mom knew what some of them meant by “fun,” and such things weren’t acceptable in our home. “I don’t care if the president’s daughter does something that’s wrong—you don’t do it. You don’t do it because you are a Harris.”
A few days later, Mabel decided to leave the group. “Mom was right,” she said later, “and deep inside I knew I was going the wrong way. Maybe I just needed her to tell me.”
All of us grew up feeling that we had a name to honor and a way of life to uphold. We were proud to be called Harris. We didn’t ever want to do anything that would dishonor our family.
“Knowing I had a name to live up to gave me determination,” my sister Freda said. “I worked hard, believing the Harris name would pull me through any situation. When I felt tempted to do less than my best, I’d hear Mom’s voice saying, ‘Always remember that your name is Harris.’ That’s all it took. I worked even harder.”
Our parents were strict; not mean or harsh, just strict. They tried to see what was best for us, not just easy for them.
Of course, not everyone agreed with the way our parents raised us.
“You’re just too demanding on those kids of yours,” a neighbor said to my mother. That woman couldn’t understand why our parents wouldn’t let us roam around the neighborhood after dark. “You keep that up and your children will grow to hate you.”
“We’re not running a popularity contest,” Mom said. “We’re trying to teach them to do right. They may not always like the way we do things, but they’ll know when they’ve done wrong.”
I have remembered those words. So have all of us.
My brother Dyfierd talks about Mom’s insistence on our behavior. “She made us believe in the importance of being a Harris. She would say, ‘Look people in the eye; hold your head up; be proud. You are a Harris.’”
Dyfierd also applies the concept of family to those directly involved with him in military action.
I have grown to realize that Mom taught us something critical in this lesson about family that has helped me immeasurably in my military career. She pushed us to stand proud and always to carry our heads high. Regardless of her illnesses and lonely times without her husband, Mom knew she was part of something bigger than herself.
Today, when I am faced with a difficult situation, I draw on that inner strength I learned at home. I look at people or the challenge and say to myself, I am a Harris. I am Mrs. Harris’s son. It may sound odd, but it works for me, because Mom gave me something to believe in that was bigger than all of us.
I’ve often used this same strategy to get soldiers to push through difficulty, because what we are charged to do is bigger than us all. Failure is not an option, and we stand firm for our military family.
For example, I was in Bosnia commanding a battalion task force with eighteen AH-64s (Apache attack helicopters) and fourteen OH-58Ds (reconnaissance/attack helicopters). One night in 1999, the Serbian military shot down an F-117 (a stealth jet bomber). The pilot had ejected and was on the ground inside Serbia. The battle captain awakened me and briefed me on the situation. He told me he had already sent in a team. If it failed, four of our AH-64s would escort two search-and-rescue helicopters into Serbia to attempt a rescue. We had no additional information.
We committed our AH-64s to the mission. “You are option two,” he said. “If option one fails, you go in next.”
Although concerned with the lack of information, my thoughts focused on the pilot behind enemy lines. He’s part of our family, I thought. We have to get him out.
One of my aviators, who stood by and planned to go on the rescue mission, wondered aloud if we could be successful in rescuing the pilot without more information.
I looked him in the eyes and said calmly, “We have an American pilot down in enemy territory. It would be great to have more details, but we don’t. Nonetheless, he is family. If the battle captain calls, we are going to try to get him.”
He stared at me, slightly shocked, and then I added, “If you were the one out there, I would do the same for you.”
We didn’t have to go after the downed pilot, because the first team found him and brought him back. Nonetheless, everyone in my unit understood that we were a military family. We would sacrifice for each other.
Because he remembers who he is, Dyfierd holds family in high esteem, as do each of us.
I’m proud to be a member of our family and proud of my heritage of being a Harris.
Of all the lessons we learned as children growing up, the first was that we must never do anything to dishonor our family’s name. This meant more than keeping up appearances—this was the principle we lived by. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Prov. 22:1).
“They can say whatever they want about you, but if you know those things aren’t true, it doesn’t matter,” Mom said. “You know the truth and so does God. That’s all that counts.”
Deborah likes to say it this way: “Protect your name because when it’s gone, you are gone.”
The name of Harris helped us face many harsh realities with strength, dignity, and empathy. That lesson started at home.