Maxine Harris was a warrior who blazed many trails, positively impacting the lives of others along the way. And she did it her way — straight forward and with grit and gusto — doing what was necessary to make life better for those who crossed her path.
She was feisty and tenacious, a diminutive fireball of energy who stuck by her principles, kept her word and fought for the things she believed were just and fair for youth, her city and its citizens, her community and its residents, and beyond.
That could be seen in all the positions Harris held, from a social worker in her early years to an educator and finally as a city councilwoman, representing District 5, and as Clinton’s mayor pro tem.
She blazed trails in those jobs, particuarly as a public servant of the city, becoming the first female to serve on the City Council and the first African-American to serve as mayor pro tem.
Working for Clinton City Schools, Harris fought hard for students, often becoming the voice of those she considered the underdog. But she didn’t empathize with students merely because of their race or life status. Instead she empathized with those she knew were working hard, were trying to rise above their situations and were doing their best not to let their circumstances define them. Her motto was simple: “When you know better, you do better,” and her goal was to teach young people the importance of a good education, a strong moral character and a solid work ethic.
She succeeded, and many of the young people she touched during her educational career serve as a living testament to that fact.
But as much as Harris enjoyed her years in education (as a counselor, assistant principal and leader of the Alternative School), she hit her stride as a councilwoman, a position she gained in 1997 and held until her death.
It was as the District 5 representative and mayor pro tem that Harris rolled up her shirtsleeves and got to work, fighting for improvements to the city and to District 5, championing causes alongside Mayor Lew Starling who, like Harris, believed that cleaning up Clinton and its neighborhoods was a solid investment in the town and its citizens.
Harris was, as City Manager Shawn Purvis attested, a passionate supporter of her neighborhood, vocal about fixing things she viewed as broken but never afraid to get her own hands dirty in the effort to make things better. When it was time to clean up, there Harris would be, picking up trash, pulling weeds, sweeping parking lots, anything she could do to be a part of the solution she always strongly advocated for when it came to her district.
Whether it was sidewalk improvements, affordable housing opportunities or revamp efforts in places like the Sampson Center, Harris spoke her mind, rallied her fellow council members and worked hard to ensure that what could be done was done.
To that end, the first of the city’s Affordable Homeownership Program homes is on Lee Street, in District 5, and two homes on Williams Street, also in her district, were part of a 2010 Community Development Block Grant project. Perhaps even more impressive is the work Harris had done with city staff that may bring 12 single-family homes to Bunting Street. Along the way, too, Sampson Center’s gym was upgraded, as well as the areas baseball field and park. Residents have Harris’ stick-to-it-ness to thank for each.
She took great pride in her community and wanted to build civic pride among its residents, believing that those who take pride in their community will look after it.
Harris loved Clinton and she touted it at every turn. We remember vividly the councilwoman’s passionate words about her town during one of the city’s All-America City presentations. She spoke from the heart to the judges about her city and its fairness to all people, and she whooped and hollered, waving a flag proudly with the rest of the crowd at a gathering of residents when an entourage returned with an AAC trophy in hand a few years later.
Though feisty and passionate, there was also a humor about Harris that was infectious, and a heart as big as the entire county of Sampson. She loved people, liked to make them laugh, and enjoyed having a good time with friends and family.
At 75, we lost her way to soon. And so did the city she loved. Clinton will forever be indebted to Harris for a lifetime of service. We hope what she started, particularly for District 5, will be carried on, becoming a lasting tribute to a woman who fought hard and served well.