Who is Syl Harris?

Sylvester Harris was an African-American author and former police lieutenant known for his landmark civil rights case against a judge. The case (Harris v. Harvey) is the first time a judge was sued and lost in a civil action in the United States.

Sylvester Harris

When Sylvester Harris was recruited as a police officer by the mayor of Racine in 1967, he was assigned to oversee the community relations division for the police department. He entered into a system where there was literally no mechanism for racial justice. So Harris made one, taking every complaint of injustice seriously, pushing for thorough investigations where there usually were none, and often forwarding reports of police brutality directly to the district attorney. In this, Harris was circumventing what he saw as a broken system.

Harris’ strategy made him no friends. The police union “declared an all out war” on him. The district attorney’s office counter-attacked Harris with regular complaints, eventually filing an illegitimate lawsuit against him. All the while, a court judge who wanted that “black bastard” off the police force, launched into a long-term, racially-motivated public defamation campaign to ruin Harris before the trial took place.

But Harris had fire in him, and a conscience that would not allow him to back down. He and attorney Paul Gossens eventually filed a civil suit against the Judge. Against all odds, they would win that suit. It became a landmark decision; the first time a sitting court judge in the United States was sued and lost in a civil action.

The case remains today, a triumph for civil rights, and a binding legal precedent in the United States.

In March 2021, Sylvester L. Harris passed away at his home in San Jose, California, where he lived with his wife Letha. Until his final days, Harris had been actively engaged in consulting and public awareness of civil and human rights causes.