It’s the 1970s, decades before the Black Lives Matter movement would be birthed, and the first black police lieutenant in a Midwest town takes on the job of wiping out racial injustice in his department.
Unrelenting, Sylvester Harris demands accountability of fellow officers, the police chief, the district attorney, and high ranking judges. Doing so makes him few friends — and a seemingly endless string of enemies.
Harris’ miraculous true story takes him all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where a landmark decision pierces the cloak of judicial immunity.
In his written accounts, Harris uncovers the deeply embedded cultures of racism within police departments; the odds are clearly stacked against communities of color.
The racist attacks that Harris faces because of his decision are raw, painful, and maddening for us to see.
Yet in his story and life, Harris also shows us something instructive and hopeful. He reveals with striking clarity, how one person with an unyielding persistence to stand up for what is right, can shine light in the darkest of places.
Harris made history. His pursuit of racial equity against all odds is a story of power and hope, and one that we should all know.
This is the story of how an entire community and legal system are turned upside down, as one judge’s racist smear campaign shakes the roots of civic life, and changes the course of history.
Sylvester Harris is the first African-American police lieutenant in Racine, Wisconsin. As head of the community relations division, Harris’ conscience does not allow him to turn a blind eye to rampant racism in the department.
He also never backs down from defending what he thinks is right.
A powerful court judge named Richard Harvey has other plans for Lieutenant Harris; wanting nothing more than to get that “black bastard” out of his city. In the ensuing roller coaster of events, guns come out, racial slurs headline newspapers, and an all-white jury must decide the fate of Harris and Harvey.
In the end, lieutenant Harris wins a miraculous victory. It is the first case in the history of the country where a sitting court judge was sued and lost in a civil action. The award of $260,000 (nearly $1 million today) is unheard of. The victory however, is bittersweet. Harris and his wife are pushed to their physical and emotional limits, Harris is forced out of the police department, never be able to live in the city again.
Despite this, the settlement remains a major landmark decision, an unshakable win for an African American cop who stands up for racial justice with all his might. The case remains today, a binding legal precedent in the United States court system.
It was January 8, 1974, 7:45 p.m. The snow was falling so thick that I could barely see the cars in front of me. The roads were so slick that I could feel my car slide each time I would attempt to put it in motion. I was on my way home from my regular Tuesday night basketball game. The car in front of me came to a sudden halt. I could barely see, because of the blowing snow that was whirling and flurrying about. I leaned forward in my seat to get a better view of what had happened in front of me. Suddenly, I saw three white men standing in front of vehicle ahead of me. I attempted to peer inside of that vehicle to see who was inside. I could see the figure of what appeared to be one man. I sat there for about three minutes and observed the three men who would not get out of the street and allow the car ahead of me to proceed. I opened my door and stood halfway out of my car. I looked back and there was a long line of traffic that was also being delayed.
I yelled at the three men. “Hey, what’s going on up there!”
“None of your goddamn business nigger!” they yelled.
I then yelled back at them “You’d better get your asses out of the street before I arrest you for interfering with traffic.”
The men moved from in front of the vehicle ahead of me and approached my car.
“Who do you think you are you black motherfucker” They said.
I replied “I’m a police officer.” I took out my badge and held it at arms length for them to see.
“You ain’t shit, nigger; I’ll blow your brains out,” the biggest man said. Before I could say another word, I was looking down the barrel of a gun…