Floyd Harris III: Southwest Fresno Student, Activist and Cheerleading Champion
by Hannah Brandt
While most four years olds are preoccupied with identifying barnyard animals, learning the alphabet, and playing patty-cake, Floyd Harris III accompanied his father Rev. Dr. Floyd Harris Jr. as he did civil rights work around the state. In 2006, the two traveled to the southern Central Valley town of Hanford where city leaders were refusing to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The holiday was declared in 1983 and decades later it had been observed yearly in most U.S. municipalities, but the African American community of this small farming town continued to be marginalized. As a preschooler, Floyd Harris III stood on the steps of the government building with a candle in protest. Now seventeen, he doesn’t remember the event and at the time he didn’t fully understand its significance but today both men feel that it was important for him to be there, immersed in the world of social justice.
A year earlier, an 11-year-old named Maribel Cuevas threw a rock at bullies who had been harassing her as she walked home from school. It hit one of them in the forehead. He was not hurt. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer had Cuevas handcuffed, arrested, and held for five days at Juvenile Hall on felony charges.
She was under house arrest for a month and forced to wear a GPS ankle bracelet. Then-mayor Alan Autry supported the police saying, “In Fresno, we love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute when in fact the consequences could have been tragic.”
What was tragic was the trauma the girl experienced. Floyd Harris III attended the vigil his father organized to denounce the injustice. As a teenager, he has been a photographer and videographer at community actions like the protest against police brutality in 2015 that shut down the North Fresno shopping center River Park.
The primarily white, affluent neighborhood is largely untouched by the harsh realities low-income people of color face in majority Latinx and Southeast Asian Southeast Fresno and majority Latinx and African American Southwest Fresno. As this 2012 video of Floyd Harris III at Justice Corner in Southwest Fresno shows, the middle schooler was finding his own voice.
Developing pride in his African American heritage and identity from a very young age was also a priority for his father. Dropping him off at school when he was five or six years old, the elder Harris remembers having his son get out of the car to proclaim, “I am a Black man. I protect the community. I protect Black women… No justice, no peace! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The younger Harris smiles and says he remembers doing that.
Floyd Harris III went to Jackson Elementary School in Southeast Fresno. According to Rev. Harris, his son’s lessons there had no references to African American history and achievement, no talk of Malcolm X. or Marcus Garvey… His father believed that “As a young Black male, he needed to understand his foundations. We send kids to schools with no African American adults, where often the teachers do not reflect the community.”
The young man believes he has often been underestimated. In a middle school history class, students did an interview project. “I applied what I had learned from my dad and they were pretty surprised. My teachers were very impressed with how well I spoke in front of the class.” His father adds, “He is a product of Southwest Fresno, where he learned all he knows. Even though the system looks at us, as black males, as inferior, he is a success.”
Today, the teenager is on the Central High School pep and cheer team, Varsity Competition Cheer team, and CheerForce Fresno. Central High has two large campuses in Southwest Fresno and a student body that is primarily African American, Asian American, and Latinx, as well as low-income.
Floyd Harris III has been on the Central cheer team for four years and its captain three. Three rings, 17 ribbons, and 31 medals from cheer championships, including two Division 1 Valley Championships, grace his shelves due to his hard work. He has two Lifetime Achievement Awards, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and a 4-year jacket for CheerForce. His sophomore year the Central team was National Valley champion and his junior year they won the World National Summit championship in Florida.
As Vice President of Central High’s Black Student Union, Floyd Harris III got recognition at the convention of the United Black Student Unions of California. His sophomore year at Central he was class treasurer. The following year, he was photo historian and treasurer for his junior class. While being crowned homecoming king as a senior brought his father to tears, Rev. Harris is even more proud of his son for taking time out of his busy schedule to be a mentor to younger Southwest Fresno kids.
According to Tina Tompkins, Central High School’s Pep and Cheer Director, “Floyd is a charismatic person who everybody loves to watch when he performs. He is constantly working on being better by taking multiple tumbling classes and participating in all-star cheer.
He helped McKinley Elementary win back-to-back District Championships! Not to mention thanks to Floyd’s choreography, El Capitan was the BEST middle school at the District Cheer Championship. He is not only a role model to his teammates but also younger cheer members as we have seen an increase in male cheerleaders at our elementary schools.”
Young Harris is also a founding member of Fresno Freedom School, the summer program his father established to teach young people in Southwest Fresno how to plant, grow, and harvest fruits and vegetables, cook healthy meals with them, and sell their produce at farmers markets. Freedom School continues Rev. Harris’s efforts to instill African American pride and make agriculture a source of power in the community.
His son has twice gotten awards from their former councilman Oliver Baines (D) for his work at Freedom School. He is also in Future Farmers of America (FFA), attaining awards at the Fresno Fair and other competitions. Floyd Harris III was accepted to Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La. where he plans to study Animal Science. He won a full-ride scholarship from the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) due to the farm skills he has mastered at Freedom School.
Rev. Harris says, “As he was growing up, I was teaching my son leadership skills, not knowing where it would lead. I started with the social justice piece and he embraced his own identity. He found a passion for a sport where he became his own man. I was brainwashed to think that cheer was just for girls.
I admit I struggled with it until I realized I went through a similar thing with my dad. He wanted me to play the tuba because he was in the marching band but I wanted to play sports. I had to accept that my son didn’t want to be a basketball star like me. He was able to be his own, independent man.
Floyd Harris III adds, “I am the first male in my family to do cheer. It is not a thing for boys to do. When I was little I did everything with my cousins who were girls. We did Gymnastics Beat together. There was a cheer team there that my cousins did, so I joined. We were undefeated. When I got to high school more kids started doing cheer after watching me do it.
I have had little boys and girls tell me they are doing it because of me. At a game at Clovis North, a woman with cancer told me she was inspired by me. I almost started crying. When you do what you love and know it inspires others, you know you are on the right path. I think I am setting an example in my family and my community by doing it.”
His father continues, “We knew we would be on a journey with it. Like with racism, people can break from the biases they have. When he went to Rio Vista Middle School, in Central Unified, the football players taunted him, calling him a sissy. He didn’t want to tell me that and was worried about how I would react.
His own football team taunted him at a Madera game. It was similar to what happens to girls who want to play football. I was very upset and ready to call a press conference about it when the school asked to be given a chance to remedy it. And they did. That was a turning point for in Central Unified.”
The duo believes Central Unified School District has been more proactive about addressing issues when they come up than Fresno Unified. That does not mean the teenager does not experience prejudice there. A few years ago the football team was happy when they won but didn’t include the cheer team in their celebration.
Rev. Harris asked, “Why not take pictures together when the cheer team works just as hard or harder than the football team. It is like how some churches only want women to cook and clean and not allow them to speak from the pulpit. After he graduates, I want to make sure the kids who come after him get the same respect as the football team.”
While Floyd Harris III has a 3.4 GPA and has been on the honor roll several times throughout his academic career, he says there was a lot he did not know about educational opportunities and how to harness them. Harris recently set up his own website, with the motto, If you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine. “I didn’t even know what Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were in middle school. I didn’t realize I would need financial aid for college.
I feel like I should have gotten more help at Central, too. The counselors and teachers steer you to go to Fresno State or to the University of California schools that cost so much. High schools don’t do enough college tours. They don’t check in with you enough. So when I am done I want to come back and speak at Freedom School to teach others about the process. I want to help the kids who are coming up after me get organized so they will have the option to do anything they want to do.”
His father says that if he was on the football team, the school would have done it all for him. “He hasn’t gotten any help. He has had to really be on it himself to get the work done to get the applications in and make sure he does everything he needs to.”
His son shows off the binder he is making to pass down to fellow Freedom School youth that has tabs for school information and college applications. “He is taking the time to look out for the next generation. He is taking his own lemons-to-lemonade experience from a negative experience to a positive.”
“Right now we are putting 120 kids into colleges from Freedom School. We want to have a regular, full-time school someday. The Black culture from the East Coast and Texas, we are trying to bring that to our community in Southwest Fresno.
We want to build that pipeline to Black colleges. We want to get their presidents to fly here. We want to have a foundation in social justice. I have always told my son that he would have to take over for me someday. Now he understands what I meant. After putting in the sweat equity to earn all those awards he has, he understands how to have an independent mind.”
Father and son have also been involved in the Fresno Poor People’s Movement since it began in 2018. Rev. Harris is the regional director of the revived national campaign and led a press conference and rally at Poverello House on April 8, 2019. Both Harrises spoke at the event.
“The street outside Poverello House is the same today as it was in 2006 when my five-year-old son was with me at an event to support the homeless. We were asking the police for patience and compassion for the homeless. We asked them not to come in with bulldozers and take all their stuff.
Now my son has grown his own wings. He understands systemic racism and police brutality. He wants to go away to college and come back to help fix the broken bridges here. To see him still be involved is important. All the trophies he has are from the same time as he has been working to help others.
We see more males in cheer now. There are two in the NFL now. To have the confidence to stand in front of an audience and perform here in Southwest Fresno, my son set the precedence. He paved the way and changed the narrative.”
To support Floyd Harris III and his academic endeavors, you may donate to his Go Fund Me.