Roy Harness’ Redemption

Roy Harness has always been a hard worker. The Ruth, Mississippi, native and Vietnam-era veteran served three years in the Army before landing a good job as a structural builder with Southern California Edison Power Company in the late 1970s.

“My daddy instilled a strong work ethic in me,” 64-year-old Harness recalls today. “Then the military taught me discipline. There was never any laziness in me.”

Ironically, it was his work ethic that led Harness into trouble. When fellow members of his Edison crew offered him drugs that would help him stay awake and work longer hours, Harness saw only the benefit. Months later, he found himself addicted to cocaine. He left California and returned to Mississippi, but his addiction followed him home. A desperate Harness soon found himself deeply in debt to drug dealers. He saw only one solution.

“I had some drawing and drafting skills, and I decided to put them to use,” Harness says with a wry smile.

Harness put those skills to use forging checks, cashing four before his crime caught up with him. Harness spent “23 months, three weeks, and three days” in Mississippi prisons on forgery charges. He was released in 1988 and spent the next two decades battling his drug addiction before finally walking through the doors of the VA hospital and telling a social worker, “I’m an addict. I need help.”

Harness overcame his addiction and returned to school, relying on his background in the utility industry to master courses in mechanical drafting, and engineering. He earned seven associate degrees and certifications from Hinds Community College, the most recent in 2015.

But Harness felt called to another line of work. He was already advocating for veterans as a volunteer; he decided to make that advocacy and service to others a full-time job. In 2015, Harness enrolled in Jackson State University, graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in social work. He is on track to receive his master’s degree in 2019, with the goal of becoming a social worker with the Veterans Administration.

“I hope I can inspire and empower other veterans who are suffering the way I suffered,” Harness says.

Having beaten his addiction, reconciled with his family, worked hard for his education, and dedicated his life to helping others, Harness is now focused on another goal. He would like to regain his right to vote.

“I did my time. I’m clean and sober, and I’m an educated, productive citizen,” Harness says. “I want to be in a position to make a difference, and that means being a part of the decision-making process in our state.”

Under Mississippi law, those convicted of forgery and certain other crimes are permanently banned from voting. The law is a part of the state’s 1890 constitution, which was drafted with the express purpose of denying African Americans the right to vote. The offenses listed were those the constitution’s authors believed were committed disproportionately by African Americans. Nationally, Mississippi is one of just 10 states that still enforces such a law. Harness is one of the plaintiffs in a case filed by MCJ challenging the 1890 provision. The ultimate goal is to restore the right to vote for thousands of Mississippians denied that right under this archaic, discriminatory law.

For Roy Harness, the opportunity to represent so many others in his situation through the lawsuit is one more form of redemption.

“Who would have thought that a former crackhead, homeless scrub would be in a master’s program, a voice for veterans, and an advocate for voting rights?” Harness says with a proud smile. “Sometimes I wonder, why did it take me so long to reach this point? But now, I see the value in these experiences and what they gave me to offer to others. And that feels good.”