Military Hero Honored Decades Later

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Military Hero Honored Decades Later



Lifetime Grenadian James Ed Harris has proven throughout his life that he will not back down from a fight. From Civil Rights unrest in his hometown to the foreign borders of Vietnam, the 78-year-old veteran has always remained focused and worked diligently to fulfill his missions no matter the sacrifices.

Nevertheless, those who know Harris will also tell you that he’s a fair man with a big heart always looking to lend a helping hand. Those friends, along with his family and numerous city officials honored the man who has experienced so much throughout his life during a Commemorative Military Celebration last November at Taylor Hall – a night all about him, which just so happened to be Veterans Day with several monumental surprises.

“This is an honor to be here for someone who has given dedicated service not only to his country, but to his community,” Ward 3 City Councilman Lewis Johnson shared with the capacity crowd as the night began to wind down. “Mr. Harris, you have a family that loves you – a family that was willing to spend the time and effort to honor you for the service that you have done. Not only as a military hero, but a community hero and a family hero – one who has led his family.”

Harris was an integral part in the historic Grenada Freedom Movement, risking his life to register black Americans to vote and integrate into white schools. He was ultimately beaten, arrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary in Parchman before being released and enlisting in the United States Army where he became a decorated soldier for his valor.

Acknowledging his sacrifices for both his city and country, Councilman Johnson went on to present Harris with a Proclamation from the City of Grenada.

“Whereas, Mr. James Harris is an outstanding person and citizen of the City of Grenada, Mississippi. And, whereas Mr. Harris is a man committed to his community and his country. Mr. Harris showed his valor, courage and sacrifice by serving in the United States Army. Mr. Harris has always been concerned about his community and has always wanted the best for his community. And, whereas, Mr. Harris is a man of God, whose ministry is one of caring, sharing and who is a member of Early Chapel Baptist Church where he serves as a faithful member. And, whereas Mr. Harris was an active leader and became an active participant in the Grenada Civil Rights Movement. And, whereas Mr. Harris is and has always been a very hardworking person who would perform any task and who instills in his family and others to follow his example. And, whereas Mr. Harris is regarded and respected with esteem by all who have known him. And now, therefore, be it resolved by the Mayor and Councilpersons of the City of Grenada, Mississippi, that we do hereby commend the life of Mr. James Harris and proclaim November 11, 2023, as Mr. James Harris Day.”

Harris’ grandson, Kyel Pittman, also read a resolution from U.S. Rep. Benny Thompson (D-Miss.), who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

“There will be copies of these resolutions that will be presented to the President of the United States,” Councilman Johnson said, adding that a resolution from the Grenada City Council requesting that President Joe Biden invite Harris to the White House to be presented would accompany the proclamations.

“We do this in recognition of so many people — so many men who are even here in this room today of color — who have served but never received the recognition and honor that was bestowed upon others,” Councilman Johnson concluded. “We say to you that we are grateful today for your service. We have watched people like you who have sacrificed, who have gone off and gave their best for a country that when you returned treated you like a second-class citizen.”

Righting A Wrong

Despite his heroics, Harris’ military accolades were never acknowledged like most soldiers returning home from foreign soil. That all changed in a big way during the celebration spearheaded by family friend Frank Crowder, who now lives in San Antonio, Texas.

“We’re going to right the wrong tonight,” the retired United States Air Force Chief Master Sergeant said as the event began to wind down.

It was then that Harris was finally officially pinned with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart decades later by his nephew, Ben Harris, who is a retired Command Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army, former Grenada Police Chief and retired Mississippi State Trooper.

Crowder then explained the significance of both medals.

The Bronze Star Medal may be awarded to individuals who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States in a combat theater, distinguish themselves by heroism, outstanding achievement, or by meritorious service not involving aerial flight.

The Purple Heart Medal is awarded to members of the Armed Forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.

Harris was also awarded an American Flag featuring his Combat Infantry Badge, which is awarded to individuals who have satisfactorily performed duty while assigned as a member of an infantry, ranger or special forces unit of brigade during any period in which such unit was engaged in active ground combat.

In addition, Harris was presented with a shadow box featuring an American flag, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and Sergeant Stripes, which also featured an image in the shape of Vietnam.

Lastly, Grenada High School JROTC member Ian McCullough presented Harris with an encased American Flag and honored him with a salute. Grenada’s JROTC also presented the colors to begin the event.

“These medals may be one thing,” Councilman Johnson said. “They may be something you can hang on your chest, something you can hang on your wall, but most of all knowing that your family thinks the world of you and we as a community think the world of you.”

The presentations brought Harris to tears.

“First of all, I would like to give all praise and honor to God for my being here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without Him. I thank each and every one of you for being here. I’m thankful for all that’s been said and done this evening. My heart is full and I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Harris continued to show his deep love for his family and friends.

“It’s amazing, I love all of you,” he concluded. “I thank you, I love you and I pray God continues to bless you. I say it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

An overwhelming “Amen” was then spoken in unison by the audience and followed by a round of applause.

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The Early Years

A native Mississippian, Harris was born on his family’s homestead in Grenada. Along with his six siblings, he was raised by his seamstress mother, Mary Harris, and his World War II veteran father, Jimmy Lee Harris.

The South was highly volatile and racial during this time. Harris worked in the cotton fields on a local plantation with his mother, who was helping her husband, who was also a carpenter. By the age of 16, James became an expert carpenter, working alongside his father. In fact, he helped build the Interstate 55 project.

“Even while working with his father and doing other jobs to help his parents with the other children, James made his school studies a priority,” his daughter, Shay, explained to the crowd.

Harris attended Carrie Dotson High School and was a standout football player. Like most athletes, he had dreams and aspirations of playing professional football. However, while he and his teammates battled other teams on the gridiron, the fight for equal rights going on around them was heating up."Unfortunately, lack of access and financing kept James from pursuing his football dreams," Shay continued. "Instead, he worked and found his passion in fighting for civil freedoms."

Harris and other teens were very aware of the times that they were in as their mothers and fathers were being denied freedom and the continued socioeconomic differences that they had experienced since childhood.

"Instead of sitting back and watching, they got involved," Shay said.

Harris and other teens then decided to join the historic Grenada Freedom Movement despite the dangers of shootings, lynching, and bombings.

"Their desires for equality were greater than their fears," Shay added.

Groups then began marching through the streets of Grenada and Harris was at the forefront.

"This group of youngsters made enough noise to catch the attention of the most prolific Civil Rights leader to date, the Honorable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Shay said.

In June 1966, Dr. King visited Mississippi to join leaders in the March Against Fear following the shooting of Civil Rights activist James Meredith, who was the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Dr. King stopped in Grenada and gathered at historic Belle Flower Missionary Baptist Church.

It was around this time when Harris was beaten, arrested, and imprisoned. According to family, the day his mother had to pick him up from prison, "hurt him."

"The day that James was released was a monumental moment for him," Shay explained. "On that day, he made the conscious decision to protect his family’s future because he decided he would rather go to war and fight for his country in the perilous Vietnam War because he felt like if he stayed here, he might end up dead."

Harris joined the 5th U.S. Army Regiment and headed to South Vietnam. Overseas, he again experienced heavy combat, which left him injured after he "threw himself directly in front of enemy fire" to save his fellow platoon members.

"Some didn’t make it back, but because of James’ faith in God, he and his guys made it back home safely," she said.

James returned home and met his wife, Shirley, and from the union two children, Shay, and James Harris Jr., were born.

"My Mom and my Dad are a perfect team," Shay concluded. "I have watched the two of them grow up literally. I watched my Mom and Dad go through ups and downs. I watched my Mom and Dad love, so I know what love is supposed to look like between a man and a woman. I know what family feels like; I know what family looks like."