Rev. Marcellus Harris Jr., an activist, civil rights leader and pastor of 45 years, dies at 81

Newport News activist, community leader and longtime pastor Rev. Dr. Marcellus L. Harris Jr. died Saturday at his home. He was 81.

Harris served as the pastor of First Baptist Church Morrison in Newport News for 45 years, overseeing the growth of the church and its relocation from a small property on Warwick Boulevard to its current location in Denbigh. He was a well-known community advocate on the front lines of racial and social justice causes.

“To me, a passion for people is something that goes beyond the walls of this church,” Harris said in a 1993 Daily Press article.

He spoke out at school board meetings, attended city council sessions, and stood up for people who experienced racial injustice.

Some of Harris’s most prominent advocacy was during the 1993 trial and conviction of then-high school athlete Allen Iverson and three friends for a bowling alley brawl in Hampton. Harris advocated for Iverson, likening his criminal case to that of Rosa Parks.

Harris also expressed support for NFL athlete and Newport News native Michael Vick after a conviction for his involvement in a dogfighting ring. “We fall down, but we get back up again,” Harris said in 2010.

Harris was also the host of a radio show on the Christian radio station WTJZ, a frequent contributor to The New Journal and Guide, and member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Hampton Roads. He was involved in youth activities, his son Marcellus L. Hariss III recalled, coaching youth basketball and driving kids around in an old yellow van.

Harris III followed his father’s example of community service by becoming a Newport News city council member, advocating for social and environmental issues — and by coaching youth basketball.

“I’m walking in the same shoes he has walked in,” Harris III said. Being around his father’s “spirit of vibrancy” and dedication to service from a young age indelibly influenced Harris III’s path in life.

Harris was born July 19, 1942 in Newport News and graduated from Huntington High School in 1960. As a teenager, he worked with his father at the Newport News Shipyard. He later enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the Vietnam War.

It was in Vietnam that Harris found his calling, according to the 1993 profile.

“I decided then I needed to get intensely involved with contributing, with making a difference. It came to me as sort of a wake-up call. I wanted to serve folk,” he said.

Following his military service, Harris returned to Newport News in 1969 and began ministry at Ivy Baptist Church. He was nervous before giving his first sermon, he recalled, but once he started to speak, he hit a groove.

“For the first time sunshine really meant something. Life really meant something. I never felt better about a day or evening. I felt valued, treasured and worthwhile.”

Through championing so many causes, Harris was driven to help people around him feel the same way: valued, worthwhile. He had a way of caring about people, relatives said.

In 1971, Harris became the pastor of First Baptist Church Morrison, where he remained until his retirement in 2016. As a preacher, Harris’s incredible memory and intellect were on display, Harris III said. Harris would give sermons and quote lengthy Bible passages without the aid of notes. Harris III remembered his father reciting the full “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. every year around January and Black History Month.

Rev. Dr. Annette Harris, Harris’s wife, said he formed deep relationships with families in the congregation that lasted the duration — and beyond — his tenure as pastor.

That care extended beyond the congregation. Harris III shared an an anecdote on social media about Harris praying for an injured football player on an opposing team during an East Carolina University-University of Alabama at Birmingham game.

“Just to show you how unconventional and unapologetic my pops is when it comes to his faith and love for people, he came out of the stands and prayed over the young man that was hurt,” Harris III wrote.

“He was the same loving, outgoing, charismatic person in public as he was in private,” Annette Harris said. “He was just the heart of our family. He brought people together wherever he went.”

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Rev. Marcellus Harris Jr.,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Scott in a statement. “He was a tireless advocate for racial justice, equality and civil rights. Newport News and the greater Hampton Roads community greatly benefitted from his advocacy and ministry.”

Harris is survived by his wife Annette Harris, their six children, 19 grandchildren and five great granddaughters. A visitation will be held Saturday from 2 to 7 p.m., and a homegoing service will be held Sunday at 1:30 p.m., both at First Baptist Church Morrison.

Cianna Morales, 757-957-1304,