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Cedric R.
Democrat LA 2

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  • Tribute to James ``Shack’’ Harris, a Barrier-Breaking Pioneer in the National Football League

    by Representative Cedric L. Richmond

    Posted on 2013-12-12

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    RICHMOND of lousiana in the house of representatives Thursday, December 12, 2013 Mr. RICHMOND. Mr. Speaker, I rise today along with my fellow colleagues Rep. Jim Clyburn (SC-06), Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37), Rep. Corrine Brown (FL-05), Rep. John Conyers (MI-13), Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD-07), Rep. Chris Collins (NY-27), Rep. Susan Davis (CA-53), Rep. Brian Higgins (NY-26), Rep. John Lewis (GA-05), Rep. Vance McAllister (LA-05), Rep. Gary Peters (MI-14), and Rep. Jon Runyan (NJ-03) to pay tribute to James ``Shack'' Harris, in this year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Like such pioneers as Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson, James Harris applied his brilliant talent and steadfast determination as an athlete to advance the cause of racial equality in America.

    James Harris was born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana, during some of the harshest years of segregation when a policy of ``massive resistance'' against court rulings and federal laws denied equal rights for Black citizens. Racial inequality pervaded football fields as much as buses, hotels and lunch counters in the South.

    But the Reverend Nashall Harris, James' father, gave his son an appropriate nickname: ``Shack,'' after the Old Testament's Meshach, one of the three ancient Jews who refused the [[Page E1847]] orders of a Babylonian tyrant to bow down and worship his golden idol. Like his namesake, James Harris would not submit to an unjust system.

    From his early teens, he aspired to play quarterback in the National Football League--a position that no African American had ever been allowed to play for more than a handful of snaps. In setting this goal, Harris challenged bigotry, stereotypes and the status quo. At the time, it was taken as fact in both college and pro football that Black athletes did not possess the necessary intelligence, leadership, and character to play quarterback. Shack shattered the vile myth.

    Inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ``I Have A Dream'' speech, Harris persisted in pursuing his own dream. After a record- setting career at Carroll High School in Monroe, he went to Grambling State University and was coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson. Coach Robinson shared James Harris's goal of breaking the color barrier at quarterback in the NFL. And Robinson had recruited him for that very reason.

    James Harris had an illustrious career at Grambling. He led the Tigers to three conference titles, set numerous passing records, was selected MVP of the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, and was chosen the nation's outstanding player in 1968 by the Washington Pigskin Club. Despite these achievements, he was not invited to any post-season all- star games and he was not selected in the NFL draft until the eighth round.

    James Harris did not give up. He would not be forced into changing positions to receiver or defensive back, as had so many promising African Americans before him. He was determined to play quarterback. Every night during training camp as a rookie, he called Eddie Robinson for advice and moral support.

    He ultimately won the starting job, and opened the 1969 NFL season as the Buffalo Bills' starting quarterback. It was the first of many ``firsts'' in his career. During three pivotal years with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1970s, James Harris led the team twice to the NFC title game, led the conference twice in passing efficiency, was chosen MVP of the Pro Bowl, and was voted captain by his teammates.

    From 1969 through 1977, Harris was virtually the only African American quarterback to be a starter. He endured hate mail and death threats. He also bore the hopes of an entire people. As Eddie Robinson had once told him: ``You have to make it. Otherwise, people will say you sent us your best and he wasn't good enough.'' By being much more than good enough, James Harris opened the door of opportunity for African American quarterbacks to follow, from Doug Williams and Warren Moon to Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.

    But Harris' legacy did not end when he walked off the playing field. He went on to become a prominent NFL executive for the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, and currently the Detroit Lions. As such, Harris has helped to pave the way for other African American coaches and general managers whose success demonstrates the power and promise of diversity and inclusion.

    So it is an honor to recognize and applaud the accomplishments of James Harris. Dr. King once called himself a ``drum major for freedom.'' We might call James Harris, the barrier-breaking quarterback, a field general for racial equality.


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