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Remembering Professor E. Sonny Harris - a fighter for social justice and Black people's rights.

                    Professor E. "Sonny" Harris

                     ~ Junious Ricardo Stanton ~

             "If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, heisn't fit to live." - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

           The world suffered a great loss early Monday morning September 14, 2015 when Edgar "Sonny" Harris made transition to the spirit realm quietly in his sleep. Sonny as he was affectionately known was a born educator and motivator, a math teacher, a school administrator, a college mathematics professor, a mathematics teacher training instructor at Cheyney University and later an adjunct professor at Temple University.

            Sonny Harris was a fighter for social justice and Black people's rights. He was born in Atlantic City New Jersey on March 1,1934. He attended the Atlantic City publics schools then matriculated to Cheyney State Teachers College. There he began a life long love affair with Cheyney and education. He graduated from Cheyney in 1958.

            Sonny returned to Atlantic City and secured a teaching position there. He refused to acquiesce to the racial oppression and the virulent discrimination in Atlantic  City so he joined the NAACP. Sonny had a knack for organizing and he eventually led the largest NAACP Youth Organization in the nation and one of the most active. He challenged the racist policies and discriminatory hiring in Atlantic City and won major victories through direct action demonstrations, protests and legal redress.

            Sonny later earned additional degrees in mathematics, teacher instruction and administration then returned to Cheyney State in 1970 to begin a long and stellar career as a professor, mentor, activist and advocate for higher education. In 1980 Sonny along with Professor Will Tate and the officers of the Student Government Cooperative Association initiated a federal lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seeking redress and remedy from their egregious long standing racial discrimination against Cheyney State College, now Cheyney University.

            They were successful in their legal suit and the Commonwealth was forced to give Cheyney $15 million dollars, new facilities and new academic programs. Over the years the Commonwealth either dragged their feet or reneged on the court mandate thinking hey could get away with it because there was no judicial oversight or follow up included in the settlement.

            As the Commonwealth continued to underfund Cheyney and set it up for failure, Professor Sonny Harris was determined not to allow Cheyney to die on the vine. In March of 2013 Sonny contacted  activist attorney Michael Coard who he had worked with when Coard was a student at Cheyney and he and Jeffrey Hart were student plaintiffs in the 1980 lawsuit for help. Sonny called me because at the time I was the president of the Cheyney University National Alumni Association and he wanted the backing and support of the alumni association. Several other former students, current faculty and education activists joined what was to become known as Heeding Cheyney's Call and we have been working to save and enhance Cheyney University.

            While Michael Coard is our spokesperson and legal advisor, Sonny Harris was the driving force behind Heeding Cheyney'S Call. Sonny was the straw that stirred the drink. Sonny' energy level and intellect were boundless. His experience as the president of the campus faculty, the faculty union president for over thirty years and president of the retired faculty union were invaluable. His wisdom and insight in higher education, administration and his leadership provided us with the weapons we needed to confront the state and the federal government and hold them accountable for their willful neglect and  deliberate discrimination.

            Heeding Cheyney's Call issued an ultimatum to the Commonwealth taking advantage of the 2013 gubernatorial election to draw attention to Cheyney's plight. The Corbett administration responded in the press to our allegations but when we fired back, they offered to meet with us to discuss the issues we raised. Their motives proved to be disingenuous, after ten months of meetings with few if any results, Heeding Cheyney's Call filed a federal lawsuit on October 29, 2014 against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, PASSHE, the US Department of Education and its Secretary Arne Duncan.

             When we first started in March of 2013 we knew we would have to seek court intervention and the recalcitrance of the Corbett administration proved us right. Heeding Cheyney's Call just like higher education advocates in Mississippi, Alabama, and Maryland had to seek legal redress to overcome the ravages and vestiges of the US racial apartheid system and decades of premeditated racial discrimination.

             We enlisted the assistance of two of the prime movers behind  the Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence the group that sued the state of Maryland on behalf of the four HBCUs there, Dr. Earl Richardson the former president of Morgan State University and Pace McConkie a civil rights attorney. They are our advisors.

             Sonny was constantly urging us on, pushing us to right the wrongs and improve conditions at Cheyney. Sonny had a sense of urgency and impatience that forced us to step up the pace.  He kept pressing on and was actively involved up to the end. When we went to Baltimore to meet with Dr Richardson and Pace McConkie a few weeks ago he was not feeling well but was determined to be there and make a contribution.

             On Sunday September 13th he and I texted back and forth beginning around 10:44 PM. I didn't call him because I thought he might be asleep. But he immediately got back to me. He answered the first question I asked. I followed it up with something else and he responded to that as well.

            When the phone rang the next morning I thought it was Sonny because his name came up on the my caller ID. It was his daughter Debra informing Sonny had made transition during the night. I was stunned and speechless; although looking back on it now I knew Sonny wasn't well he kept on keepin' on! His passing has been hard for me. He called me every morning and I miss that. His tenacity, relentlessness and intellect will be missed. We cannot replace Sonny Harris. Michael, myself and the Heeding Cheyney's Call Steering COmmittee are committed to carry on the fight. We will complete the task. Sonny Harris is now a venerated ancestor and as such his spirit and intercession will carry us through.

            Heeding Cheyney's Call is in this struggle to save Cheyney for the long haul. We are in it to win it. We will keep the legacy and vision of Professor E. Sonny Harris alive. For updates and  more information about Heeding Cheyney's Call visit our Website at www.Heedingcheyneyscall.org, Instagram, Twitter and FaceBook.

                                                                                                                                                                              -30-

 

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