Harris was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. He grew up and attended high school in Durham, North Carolina, where he began his career at the F. W. Woolworth Company store, in 1923, as an assistant stock room manager. He continued working at Woolworth's after school and at night during his five and a half years at Trinity College, now Duke University, from which he graduated in 1928 with a major in accounting and business law.
From 1929 to 1933 Harris worked as assistant manager at the Durham Woolworth's. In 1933 he was transferred to the Harrisonburg, Virginia, store and promoted to store manager. He managed the Wilmington, North Carolina, store from 1937 to 1947, and the Raleigh store from 1947 to 1955, when he was transferred to the Greensboro, North Carolina store. He remained at the Greensboro store until his retirement in 1969.
On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, four young African-American students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), entered the downtown Greensboro Woolworth's and sat at the "whites only" lunch counter. Although a Woolworth's waitress told them "we don't serve Negroes here," the four students refused to leave their seats for the rest of the day. During the following days and months the four students were joined by other students in their sit-in demonstration, Sit-in protests spread to over one hundred cities across the United States during the next year, and are considered the onset of the 1960s civil rights movement.
On Monday, July 25, 1960, after nearly $200,000 in losses due to the demonstrations, store manager Harris quietly integrated the lunch counter when he asked 3 black employees of the store to change out of work cloths into street clothes and order a meal at the counter. These were the first black customers to be served at the store's lunch counter. The event received little publicity .
- Finding Aid for the Clarence Lee Harris Papers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro
- Civil Rights Greensboro: Clarence Harris