Like his home state, Mississippi native Noah Harris caught attention in November when he became the first Black man to be elected to serve as Harvard University’s student body president.
The 20-year-old junior and government major and his running mate, Jenny Gan, ran a campaign to make sure no Harvard student was left behind during the roller coaster ride of 2020. The pair rented a local warehouse so students could store their belongings at a cheaper price than what the university was offering. Harris, who also co-chairs the Undergraduate Council’s Black caucus, helped his classmates raise $300,000 for Black-led advocacy and civil rights organizations.
The same time Harris was creating progress at Harvard, he was encouraged by the changes that were occurring in his home state. In November, Mississippians not only voted on a new state flag that will soon replace the former flag that contained a Confederate symbol, voters also legalized medical marijuana.
Harris talks about what Mississippi needs to do to continue progress for the next generation of Mississippians for Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series. There is a lot of work to be done, but Harris prefers to see Southern progress as a glass-half-full type of situation.
“It’s not like we’ve gotten rid of all these things, made all these changes, and we’re still stuck in the same place,” Harris said. “So I’m looking at it from an optimistic standpoint by saying, ‘There’s so much work that we can do.’ We just have to invest in that work, take it one step at a time and eventually we’ll get there.”
Part of that work requires Mississippians to examine the state’s past and present weaknesses. Along with approving a new state flag, Mississippians also voted to remove Jim–Crow era language from the state’s 1890 constitution. The provisions were put in place to prevent African Americans from winning state elections at a time when Black citizens made up the majority of the state’s population. To this day, no African American has ever been popularly elected to a statewide office in Mississippi – the state that has the highest percentage of African Americans.
Harris says a future South involves cutting ties with Jim Crow in every way by looking out for other policies, practices or barriers that stymie progress.
“Just because these laws no longer exist doesn’t mean it rectifies the harm done to generations of people who were pushed and held back while other individuals were able to gain an advantage based off of those structural injustices” Harris said.
When it comes to present issues, the state’s population has been slowly dipping in the past couple of years. Harris hopes his state will start investing in better education, healthcare and mental healthcare systems. Mississippi ranked dead last behind every state and Washington, D.C. on The Commonwealth Fund’s healthcare scorecard. Improving statistics like that will entice young people to build their life in the Magnolia State, Harris said.
“A lot of the reason why people don’t always move back to Mississippi is because they feel they have better opportunities elsewhere,” Harris said. “I feel like people are looking for reasons to stay in the South, to build wealth in the South, to stay with the roots of their families and their legacies in the South, but I believe we have to give people a reason to want to stay.”
Harris believes Mississippi has the people power and potential to make this work happen. Stacey Abrams, a Black woman credited for changing the political tides in Georgia, learned about work ethic while growing on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Harris was raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to lead by serving others. He grew up watching Black leaders like Johnny DuPree make history. DuPree who not only became the first Black mayor of Hattiesburg. In 2011, DuPree, a Democrat, was also the first Black candidate to be nominated by a major party to run for governor.
“Seeing him made me feel like my race wasn’t something that would hold me back,” Harris said. “If you’re Black, if you’re white or whatever your background is, you can really do anything. If you put the work in, you can really make a difference.”
Harris and his running mate campaigned under the slogan “Building tomorrow’s Harvard.” Considering the changes Mississippians voted for last year, Harris was asked by Reckon to create a slogan for his state. His answer: We’re on our way.
“We have a significant amount of people who are really seeing that we need to make some changes and we are willing to be receptive of that change,” he said. “Mississippi is a lot more flexible now than before and we’re continuing to evolve.”
If you’re Black, under 30 and have something to say about the future of the South, email Reckon reporter Starr Dunigan at [email protected] You can also reach her via Twitter and Facebook. While you’re at it, consider joining the Black Magic Project Facebook group, where we talk about topics concerning Black, southern community and culture.