By Hannah Brandt
While most four-year-olds are preoccupied identifying barnyard animals, learning the alphabet and playing patty-cake, Floyd Harris III accompanied his father, Rev. Dr. Floyd Harris, Jr., as he did civil rights work. In 2006, they traveled to Hanford where city leaders were refusing to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Declared in 1983, most towns observed the holiday, but the African American community of the small farming town continued to be marginalized. As a preschooler, Floyd Harris III stood with his father at city hall, candle in hand. Now 18, he has no memory of this. As a child, he didn’t understand its significance but he does today.
In 2005, an 11-year-old named Maribel Cuevas threw a rock at bullies. It hit one of them, but he was not hurt. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer had Cuevas handcuffed, arrested and held for five days at Juvenile Hall on felony charges. She was under house arrest for a month and forced to wear a GPS ankle bracelet.
Then Fresno Mayor Alan Autry said, “In Fresno, we love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute when in fact the consequences could have been tragic.”
What was tragic was the trauma the girl experienced. As a tyke, Floyd Harris III attended his father’s vigil for the girl’s family. A 2012 video of the middle schooler at Justice Corner in southwest Fresno shows him finding his voice. In 2015, he helped at a protest against police brutality, shutting down River Park.
Developing pride in his African American heritage was a priority for the elder Harris. Dropping his son off at Jackson Elementary School, he had him get out of the car to proclaim, “I am a Black man. I protect the community. I protect Black women…No justice, no peace! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The younger Harris smiles as he remembers.
His lessons had no references to African American history and achievement, no talk of Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey. Rev. Harris believed “he needed to understand his foundations. We send kids to schools with no African American adults, where often the teachers do not reflect the community.”
The young man often felt underestimated. “During a project, I applied what I learned from my dad and my teachers were surprised by how well I spoke in front of the class.”
His father adds, “He is a product of southwest Fresno, where he learned all he knows. Although the system looks at Black males as inferior, he is a success.”
Floyd Harris III was on Central High’s cheer team for four years and its captain for three. He also competed in Varsity Competition Cheer and at CheerForce Fresno. Three rings, 17 ribbons and 31 medals, including two Division 1 Valley Championships, grace his shelves due to his hard work. His sophomore year, Central was National Valley champion; his junior year they became World National Summit champions.
As vice president of Central’s Black Student Union (BSA), Floyd Harris III received recognition at the convention of United Black Student Unions of California. While being crowned homecoming king brought his father to tears, Rev. Harris is prouder that his son mentors younger kids.
According to Central’s cheer director, “Floyd is charismatic. Everybody loves to watch him perform. He’s constantly working to be better…Floyd choreographed many routines for our elementary and middle schools. He helped McKinley Elementary win back-to-back District Championships! El Capitan won best middle school at the District Cheer Championship…Thanks to Floyd, we’ve seen more male cheerleaders at our elementary schools.”
Dr. Jean Kennedy and Rev. Harris co-founded the Fresno Freedom School to teach youth to grow produce, sell it at farmers’ markets and cook healthy meals with it. Floyd Harris III twice received awards from former Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines for his work at the Freedom School.
As part of Future Farmers of America (FFA), he won awards at the Fresno Fair and a full-ride scholarship from the federal Department of Agriculture. He was accepted to Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., where he plans to study animal science.
“I taught him leadership skills, not knowing where it would lead,” says Rev. Harris. “He found a passion for a sport where he became his own man. I was brainwashed to think cheer was just for girls. I admit I struggled until I realized I went through a similar thing with my dad. He wanted me to play tuba because he was in band, but I wanted to play sports. I had to accept that my son didn’t want to be a basketball star like me.”
Floyd Harris III adds, “I’m the first male in my family to do cheer. When I was little I did everything with my female cousins. More kids started doing cheer after watching me. When you do what you love and know it inspires others, you know you’re on the right path.”
His father continues, “In middle school, some football players called him a sissy. He was worried about how I would react. It was similar to what happens to girls who want to play football. I was ready to call a press conference when the school asked to have a chance to remedy it. And they did. That was a turning point for Central Unified.”
A few years ago, the football team didn’t include the cheer team in their celebration. Rev. Harris asked, “Why not take pictures together? They work just as hard. It’s like how some churches only want women to cook and clean but don’t let them speak from the pulpit. After he graduates, I want to make sure all kids get the same respect as the football team.”
While Floyd Harris III made honor roll, he did not know how to harness educational opportunities. “I didn’t even know what Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were. I didn’t realize I would need financial aid.
“I will be the first in my family to attend a four-year HBCU. High schools don’t do enough college tours. They don’t check in with you enough.”
The young man set up a Web site with the motto, “If you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine.”
“When I am done I want to come back to Freedom School to teach others about the process,” says Floyd Harris III. “I want to help kids coming after me so they can do anything they want.”
His father says, “He got no help to ensure he had everything he needs. He’s taking the time to look out for the next generation. He took his experience from lemons to lemonade.”
As regional director of the Fresno Poor People’s Movement, Rev. Harris led a demonstration outside Poverello House in April. “That street is the same today as in 2006 when my five-year-old son accompanied me to support the homeless. We asked the police for compassion to not bulldoze their stuff.
“We want [the] Freedom School to be a full-time foundation in social justice that is a pipeline to Black colleges. I told my son he would have to take over for me someday. Now with an independent mind, he understands systemic racism and police brutality.
“He wants to return after college to help fix broken bridges here. He earned all his trophies while he was also helping others. To have the confidence to cheer in southwest Fresno, my son paved the way and changed the narrative. He has grown his own wings.”
To support Floyd Harris III and his academic endeavors, you may donate to his Go Fund Me.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Fresno Free Press (fresnofreepress.com), a new reader-supported independent online journalism organization based in the Central Valley. She is a previous editor of the Community Alliance newspaper and a former high school social studies teacher.