Oakwood University (Huntsville, Alabama)
I had the privilege of meeting Courtney Harris in 2015, at an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast. Commissioner Robert “Bob” Harrison (Madison County Alabama, District Six) introduced us and described her as “the young lady who was instrumental in coordinating the “March in Memory of Michael Brown,” an unforgettable event for the people of Huntsville, Alabama.
This interview was conducted to find out more about Ms. Harris and what it took for her to put together a March in Memory of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Q. Tell me a more about Courtney Harris. Who is she?
A. I am originally from Augusta, Georgia. I currently live in Huntsville, Alabama and attend Oakwood University, where I am a junior English major. I’m 21 and most of my interests revolve around art and it’s different faces, traveling, reading, learning, music, etc.
Q. Do you think civic engagement is important? Why or why not?
A. Civic engagement is definitely important because of the influence it has over those who may not know how to use their voice or if it will even be counted. It is supposed to be a catalyst for inspiration and serve those that are underrepresented.
Q. As you know, I was made aware that you organized the March for Michael Brown here in Huntsville, Alabama. Why was this March important? Who helped you learn how to organize such an event?
A. My friend sent me a text message the night Darren Wilson [the police officer who was acquitted of killing Michael Brown]. Her message simply said, and excuse the language, “I’m sick of this shit.” I just answered saying, “we’ve got to do something.”
Ultimately, she and I organized this march in all of two days. Neither of us really had a set plan about how it should and would go, but we were feeding off of each other’s energy, anxiety, anger, and hurt.
In my opinion, this march was needed for the black community in Huntsville to vent. Even though this town is relatively peaceful, racism is still blatant and/or swept under the rug, leaving those affected either fearful or just plain tired. To be honest, we weren’t even expecting a good turn out due to the time it took to organize, where we were, as well as who it was coming from – two young black girls who have the tendency to be very sensitive when it comes to our skin. We needed this. It was like the nap you take after a good cry.
So many people showed up to the march. So many people yelled with us, cried with us, stood with us. It was literally unifying.
Q. Did you experience any challenges when trying to organize the march?
A. There were so many challenge – from our School Board officials, to the campus police department, to the from Huntsville Police Department, and finally the Mayor.
The day before the march, our school told us if we continue with this march, we would be expelled because they did not want the school to “look bad.” Did I mention we attend a historically black college? But I digress. We told them we were still going to do it and we went from dorm to dorm making announcements about the March. We later learned that some of the deans in the dorms had made statements after we left, telling the students that if they were arrested it was their fault because they protested. They also told students that they would sit in jail through the weekend. Basically the deans were instilling fear and trying to keep students from participating.
By this time, our buzz on social media had increased. People were commenting on news articles about the march, sharing on Facebook, and event tweeting about how they couldn’t wait to run us over. They were threatening to “kill us, inconsiderate niggers”.
The morning of the march, I received a call from the campus PD saying that Huntsville PD would arrest anyone who stepped into the street. I was also told that my friend and I would be arrested for inciting a riot. They suggested that we didn’t go forward with the March. We assured them that the march would still take place. They eventually called again and told us that they would close a section of the road for us, but we had to fill out a form and that it would take 24 hours to process. We told them no thanks and that the March was still taking place as planned. We even told them that we would be onto the main road. This is when the Mayor got involved.
The Mayor eventually said that we could have our way and we marched down Wynn Drive, only to find out that they blocked off University Drive to Rideout Road.
Q. If you could do this again, would you? Why or why not?
A. I would do it all again, in a heartbeat. I still love the rush that I got from seeing that many people, of many different colors, marching together for the same cause. I loved to see so many people who were willing to help so that we could get our message across.
Q. How have people around you reacted since the march?
A. The March is what birthed our blacktivist group, Salaam, where we work with the community us to mentor, educate, and provide outlets for creative expression. The community also holds town halls where they discuss plans of action as well as other ways we can improve our place, as students and young people, within the community.
Q. What do you hope to do in the future (e.g. career ventures or volunteer ventures)?
A. For me? I would like to become a writer as well as a professor of African American Literature. I also want to participate in volunteer work in other countries, for the experience as well as for the learning opportunities and inspiration.