Jesse Harris got involved in the Civil Rights Movement early in his career. After he heard about the murders of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, and Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Mississippi, Harris was catapulted into the movement for social justice. As he recalls, in school, Harris had to write a paper regarding current events taking place – so, he wrote about Mack Charles Parker. His teacher denied accepting the paper because she said it was too controversial to discuss during this tumultuous time in history.
In the early sixties, Harris worked on voter registration campaigns around Mississippi including the Mississippi Delta. In 1961, he received information regarding Freedom Riders and their plan to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights rally was planned. Freedom Riders came to the South to work for desegregation of public facilities serving interstate transportation, as segregation of such facilities and buses had been declared unconstitutional. The federal government had done nothing to enforce the Supreme Court decisions, and southern states ignored the rulings.
Harris explains that his Civil Rights education began when he was imprisoned in Parchman along with people like James Farmer, James Bevel, Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash, and Leon Diamond; this is when he learned about “the movement of the past.” After spending nearly 23 days in Parchman prison, Harris was invited by James Farmer, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to become part of SNCC as a field secretary. In this new position, Harris was assigned to work in Laurel, Mississippi with the Jones County Improvement Association to organize a voter registration project and a non-violent workshop with high school students in the area. After seeing the work that Harris had been accomplishing, Bob Moses, serving as the Mississippi state director of SNCC, asked Harris to go to Greenwood to support and reinforce the work they were doing in the Mississippi Delta. After the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other civil rights organizations left the area, Harris along with other Tougaloo students continued the fight for justice through protests and demonstrations wherever there was a need for civil and human rights.
In 1964, Harris was instrumental in helping train Freedom Summer volunteers before they came to Mississippi and managed the volunteers in and around McComb. Harris was also an organizer for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the mid-sixties, he worked for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, a predecessor to Head Start. Later, Harris worked with the Poor People’s Corporation and the Federation of Southern Co-Ops in an effort to improve the economic opportunities for black craftspeople and farmers. For the next decade or so, Harris lived in Chicago, New York, and Florida and worked in various jobs, including a longshoreman, a truck driver, an airplane engine mechanic, and an instructor for a community college golf team.
Now retired, Harris lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he is still actively engaged in community organizing. As a member of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Harris continues his fight for Civil and Human Rights. Harris was awarded the 2014 Humanitarian Award by Jackson State University’s Fannie Lou Hamer Institute @ COFO.