LEARNING, LIVING AND LEAVING A LEGACY ....
That was the famous tag line of e-mails written by a friend and class mate at Boston College Law School. November 23 marks the second anniversary of his tragic death. While many of us talked a good game about public interest and achieving social justice with our law degress, Arthur was busy walking the walk. He had no patience for setting up meetings to talk about societal problems, he wanted action! He comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. In my health law class, he was fond of saying things like, "I don't care what the law book says, failing to provide health care for all violates a higher code," or "It's just not right!" I am quoting the entire Boston Globe obituary of Arthur below.
Arthur declined the offers of some classmates and teachers, and decided to live in a homeless shelter during his last year of law school. He wanted to live with the people he hoped to serve in his career. While the causes of death were unknown, there was some speculation by the media later that Arthur had engaged in drug use in the wake of coping with the death of a friend of his at the shelter. All I know is that he was a drum major for justice in a society that could use more. It is hard to do justice to the life of Arthur in one post.
On Dec. 6, 2005, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in FAIR v. Rumsfeld over a federal requirement that forces schools like BC Law to give red carpet treatment to military recuiters even though the military openly discriminates against gay, lesbian and bisexual students -- students that are friends of mine. One of the plaintiffs along with FAIR is a small group of students from BC Law that I belong to-- the Coalition for Equality. A small group of us formed this coalition to help BC stand by its principles of non-discrimination, even in the face of heavy-handed government tactics. One of our most committed members was Arthur and I can still hear him leading our cheers: "What do we want? -- Justice! When do we want it? -- Now!" In my mind's eye, Arthur is still rallying the saints; and if there is anyone victimized by discrimination in heaven, Arthur probably is organizing to take it on; and I'm sure he's using any other powers he has to give us a magical fifth vote on the Supreme Court. Let us all take special efforts to comfort the afflicted on this day, but Arthur would want equal time going to afflicting the comfortable. We miss you Arthur.
HEADLINE: ARTHUR HARRIS, 27, LAW STUDENT WHO LIVED WITH THE HOMELESS
BYLINE: By Gloria Negri, Globe Staff
Arthur C. Harris could have lived near Boston College Law School, where he was a third-year student. He chose, instead, to live with the homeless at Long Island Shelter in Boston Harbor. For 10 months, he commuted by public transportation to the law school campus in Newton, telling friends that he stayed at the shelter to prepare for his future work with the needy, a pledge he made because of his own impoverished childhood in Alabama.
"I'm happy because I'm learning more about the struggles that confront the homeless," he e-mailed Norah Wylie, associate dean of students at the law school, who had expressed concern about his long commute. "This will make me a more successful advocate for the poor and disenfranchised."
Mr. Harris died at the shelter in his sleep on Nov. 23. He was 27. Wylie said she had been informed by the medical examiner's office that preliminary tests indicated he died of natural causes. Cheryl McCloud, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, which operates the shelter, said an internal investigation of Mr. Harris's death is underway. Such an investigation is standard procedure for any death at the facility.
In Montgomery, Ala., where Mr. Harris was born, his mother, Mona Scott, said in a phone interview yesterday that she knew of no illness her son might have had. "He was somewhat overweight," she said. "He knew how to cook but didn't, and ate all that fast food instead." She recalled how excited he was about taking a hiatus from classes to go on the campaign trail next year with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
"I saw my child as another Martin Luther King," Scott said. "He was thoughtful, a godly child, very respectful and listened to his mom. I always taught my kids [these] words to secure their lives: 'yes ma'am, yes sir; excuse me; may I? please; and thank-you.' Arthur abided by them all and took them all the way to Boston College."
The respect in which the college community held Mr. Harris was shown yesterday at a memorial service in the law school chapel. "Arthur was an incredible young man," said college spokesman Jack Dunn. "Rare is the person in this day and age so committed to his principles that he would choose to live in a homeless shelter to help improve the lives of the needy. He was an inspiration to everyone at BC Law."
"I was Arthur's professor," said Kent Greenfield. "But, like many of us here, I was also his student. I learned from him. I saw in him what it means to be a person of courage who never stands silent in the face of injustice."
In spite of adversity, Greenfield said, Mr. Harris "seemed to grow. He was a large man, and I do not mean his physical size. I mean that he possessed a substantial soul. It was as if he took to heart the advice of Rainer Maria Rilke, who advised a young friend that, 'We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.'"
At BC, Mr. Harris worked on the Solomon Amendment Task Force, opposing the federal policy that forces colleges to allow military recruiters on campus if they want to continue receiving federal funds. He was a member of the Coalition for Equality and the Black Law Students Association.
Wylie said Mr. Harris had some scholarships at BC, and one summer he did an internship in Boston Juvenile Court. "Arthur was a passionate fighter against all kinds of discrimination," she said. "He was a sweet man who would tend to challenge people to do more to help others. He would always say, 'My grandfather says we're here on earth to give back to others.'"
Mr. Harris was one of three sons. Raising her family in public housing, Scott said, she worked as a housekeeper and cleaning lady to keep her children in school. In his law school application, Mr. Harris wrote how, as an African-American in a poverty stricken area, he and his family were often the targets of police profiling and searches, though they had done nothing wrong. "These experiences gave him the desire to fight for change and inspired him to work even harder to get the educational background he felt he needed to become an effective advocate for the poor and the homeless," said Nate Kenyon, a law school spokesman.
Scott said her son took her warning to heart, "to never take home a 'C, D, or E' on his report card, and won a full scholarship to the University of Alabama in Birmingham. At UAB, Mr. Harris was president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association and led the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society. He was elected to the Alpha Kappa Delta International Society and the Phi Beta Delta Honor Society for International Scholars.
While at UAB, Mr. Harris was working 35 hours per week at two jobs, at a bookstore and a pharmacy. He graduated in 2000. "Arthur wanted to become a voice for change," Kenyon said, "and assist in urban renewal efforts to revitalize the inner cities of America."
Wylie said Mr. Harris had a tag line for his emails: "Living, learning and leaving a legacy." Besides his mother, Mr. Harris leaves his grandfather, Sidney, who helped raise him, and brothers Preslay and Marcus Thomas, all of Montgomery. Another memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in People's Baptist Church in Montgomery. Burial will be in New Elam Cemetery in Bullock County, Ala.