Civil rights work
Harris' civil rights work began in 1950 with his stint as President of the Hopewell chapter of the NAACP. In 1960, he was arrested and sentenced to 60 days in gaol for his role in a sit-in at a segregated drugstore in Hopewell, Virginia. Later in that year, he protested the segregation of the Hopewell swimming pool, which eventually led to the pool's closure. In 1966, Harris led a peaceful demonstration to prevent the building of a landfill in Hopewell's African American community; and was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of city hall.
In 1960, he initiated the Hopewell Improvement Association, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was elected Vice President. He was named to the Board of Directors of the National SCLC in 1961 while Martin Luther King, Jr. was president. Harris worked with Dr. King on a large number of civil rights initiatives, including the Selma to Montgomery marches. Harris cites Dr. King as one of his mentors in the Civil Rights Movement. He served as president of the Virginia State Unit of SCLC from 1963–1998, and was elected the National SCLC Vice President in 2005.
In 1987, he led a march against discrimination in Colonial Heights, Virginia. In 1996, he filed a discrimination complaint against a Fort Lee, Virginia military unit. In 2007, Harris marched against a proposed ethanol plant being built in Hopewell with support from the national SCLC.
Other professional work
Curtis Harris was working at Allied Chemical when he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1959, and with First Baptist Bermuda Hundred in Chester, VA being his first pastorship. In 1961, he was called to pastor at both Union Baptist Church in Hopewell, VA and Gilfield Baptist Church in Ivor, VA. Rev. Harris retired from Gilfield in 1994, and on December 16, 2007, he retired as pastor of the Union Baptist after 46 years.
In 1983, Harris' repeated calls, in combination with a large number of additional voices, moved the city of Hopewell to replace its longstanding at-large system with a ward system to elect city council members. Harris made repeated attempts until he was finally elected to the Hopewell City Council (Ward 2) in 1986; in 1994 he was elected vice mayor; and in 1998, Harris was sworn in as the first African-American mayor of Hopewell. After 26 years of service to the city as well as to his constituents in Ward 2, Curtis Harris retired from his seat on the Hopewell City Council on March 1, 2012.