Civil rights activist, state government official
Aaron Edd Henry dedicated his life to the uplift of the people in the state of Mississippi and of the nation. Henry's service extends to the NAACP, the Free-dom Riders, and the Mississippi House of Representatives. Protest and personal involvement brought him shoulder to shoulder with the great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and longtime friend Medgar Evers. Although Aaron Henry is not known widely outside Mississippi, his service to his community had a direct impact on all communities that struggled for equality.
Aaron Edd Henry was born on July 2, 1922, in Dublin, Mississippi, on the Flowers Plantation. Sharecropping was a well-established system in the South, and Henry's father was a sharecropper with forty acres to farm. When he was three, Henry's mother died and two years later his father also died. Henry was raised by his mother's brother Ed Henry and his wife Mattie. In his younger years Henry worked on the Flowers plantation and later as a shoeshine boy and a porter. The elder Henry tried his hand at shoe cobbling and was quite successful. In 1927 the family moved to Webb, Mississippi, to set up a cobbler shop. Within a year the family moved again to Clarksville and bought a home. In Clarksville, Henry was not allowed to become a Boy Scout. Because the organizers of the Boy Scout troop taught the boys to march, which was viewed as a means toward protests, the troop was asked to leave. The white community was concerned that the troop might promote actions that they would not condone. Henry came to realize that whites were the authority and they would not risk anyone or any group undermining that authority.
In high school Henry was greatly influenced by his teacher, Thelma K. Shelby. She taught English and economics and was a member of the NAACP. She encouraged Henry and other students to realize their own self worth. Henry wrote in his autobiography that the lesson they learned from Shelby and other teachers was, "You are as good as anybody. You must believe in your personal worth and that you are equal to any other man. Racial superiority is a myth."
Henry completed high school in 1941 and in 1943 was drafted into the army. He was discharged after three years of service, and attended Xavier University in New Orleans on the G. I. Bill. He served as student body president and president of his junior and senior classes. In 1950 with a pharmaceutical degree in hand, Henry returned to Clarksville. He opened up the only black pharmacy in the local community. Henry was successful in his business and became a leading voice in the community. He married Noelle Michael and they had daughter, Rebecca.
- Born in Dublin, Mississippi on July 2
- Completes high school
- Drafted into the army
- Returns to Clarksville with a pharmaceutical degree from Xavier University; marries Nicolle Michael
- Joins the local NAACP
- Serves as president of state chapter of NAACP
- Arrested with Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi; boycotts business in Clarksville
- Loses close friend and freedom fighter, Medgar Evers; orchestrates mock election for governor
- Attends the Democratic National Convention with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)
- Organizes and chairs the Loyalist Democratic Party
- Files suit for redistricting of Mississippi
- Elected to Mississippi House of Representatives and holds position until 1996
- Death of wife Nicolle
- Dies of heart failure in Clarksville, Mississippi
Civil Rights Activism and Leadership
In 1954, Henry joined the local chapter of the NAACP. He saw a need to organize and manage the various organizations that were associated with the NAACP. In order to coordinate these activities, inclusive of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), Henry and others devel-oped a management organization called the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). The organization, which was started in 1955 but remained dormant until the 1960s, took on the large-scale initiative toward adult education and voter registration. The voter registration project was to have several headquarters in order to support the community while registering persons to vote. Most blacks that tried to register suffered all types of abuse, threats, and violence. Many were arrested on fake charges, beaten, fired from their jobs, threatened, and some were run out of town. COFO played a key part in educating and supporting the black communities in Mississippi.
Henry's commitment as a leader along with his unflinching determination to fight segregation earned him the position of president of the state chapter of the NAACP in 1960. In December 1960 the Supreme Court ordered the integration of all bus stations and terminals serving interstate travelers. When blacks tried to use terminals and front seating in busses they were often thrown off, beaten, or jailed. Henry and COFO supported the Freedom Riders and their efforts to openly challenge and protest such treatment. The Freedom Riders' travels across the South were met with violent attacks. They arrived in Mississippi in May 1961. Henry was among the group arrested at Jackson, Mississippi. Along with Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure), Jim Forman and other protestors, he was taken to the Parch-man State Penitentiary. Many could have paid the fines and been released, but they chose not to in order to dramatize the racism and segregation and also not give their money to the racist state. By the end of the summer over three hundred protesters had been arrested and were being held at the penitentiary. Henry by his own account had been arrested over thirty-eight times in the struggle for equal rights.
One of Henry's plans for fighting segregation in the local community was a 1961 boycott of businesses in Clarksville, Mississippi, which discriminated against black customers and did not hire blacks. The boycott, which began in 1961, saw the city respond by arresting Henry and six other protestors for conspiring to withhold trade. Although the protesters were convicted, the ruling was overturned on appeal, and the boycott continued. Henry was then arrested for sexually harassing a white female hitchhiker and was convicted in March 1962. The appeals count overturned the conviction, and Henry was exonerated. As the boycott continued, Henry claimed that the local prosecutor and the police chief falsified the sexual harassment charges against him on the basis of his civil rights activities. The prosecutor and the police chief sued Henry and were awarded $80,000, but the verdict was again reversed by an appeals court. The city officials had done all they could to terrorize Henry, including fire bombing his pharmacy and having his wife fired from her teaching position. Henry remained steadfast in his work for equal rights. The boycott continued for three years with decreasing effect because of transportation problems in trading in other places. The boycott was called with the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The year 1963 was a difficult time for the movement and for Henry. Henry's close friend and colleague in the movement, Medgar Evers, was killed at his home in June. Henry had gone to see Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, regarding their testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C. the next day. Henry had a speech to give the next morning in Houston to the Texas Pharmaceutical Association and planned to meet Evers in Washington that afternoon. Evers took Henry to the airport after their meeting. Back at home, Evers was murdered in his driveway. Henry heard the report of Evers's death the next morning as he dressed for his speech. Evers and Henry had been friends since the early 1950s. They had investigated cases of racial violence to obtain affidavits for witnesses. At the time Henry was supporting Evers in his bid as field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. They both were aware that each day could be their last. Henry lost a friend, and the country lost a courageous fighter for the movement. Henry later learned it was a coin-toss to determine whether Henry or Evers would be the target of the murder. Henry was quoted in his New York Times obituary as having said that once Evers was murdered, he made "sure he didn't die in vain."
Although before 1963 there had been some success in getting blacks registered to vote, there was a need to increase efforts. Senators James O. Eastland and John Stennis told Congress that blacks did not vote because they were too lazy and unconcerned about political issues. In response to these erroneous statements, under Henry's guidance COFO orchestrated a mock election for the governor of Mississippi in 1963. The plan was to show the nation that blacks would vote if given the opportunity. The plan was also to stress the important issues that the actual campaign ignored, in deference to an aggressive racist agenda. In the mock campaign, Henry was the candidate for governor and Edwin King, a white Methodist minister from Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, was the candidate for lieutenant governor. The two men traveled around Mississippi, giving campaign speeches and operating as an official campaign. After the election and the votes were counted, eighty thousand blacks had voted which was nearly three times the official number of black registered voters. As a result of the mock election, the officially elected governor of Mississippi stated that the state would no longer be divided based on race, color, or creed. For black voters this was a start.
Representation and 1964 Democratic Convention
The summer of 1964 was designated as Freedom Summer by COFO. The campaign to register black voters was accelerated with the aid of eight hundred volunteers, which included many white college students. To come one step closer to political access, Henry co-founded and served as chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). This coalition of blacks and whites sought to challenge the exclusion of black voters from the Democratic Party. The MFDP selected sixty-eight delegates to attend the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. President Lyndon Johnson said the MFDP delegates could not participate, and the attorney general of Mississippi issued an injunction threatening the delegates with jail if they tried to attend. The MFDP candidates, including Henry, attended the convention in spite of the injunction. They requested to be seated at the convention and received support for their request from other delegates. After three days of both sides standing their ground, a compromised was offered. The MFDP delegates were offered at-large status, which did not allow them to vote or represent any state. Henry and the delegation refused this offer. Another compromise was offered which would allow at-large seating only for Henry and King. Unknown to the MFDP delegation, James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Bayard Rustin reluctantly agreed to the compromise and settled for political expediency. Still not informed of the acceptance, on the first day of the convention the delegates took seats on the floor, causing quite a stir. The next morning Henry and Martin Luther King Jr. tried to persuade the delegation to accept the compromise, but they refused. They felt that blacks always had to compromise. The young black veterans labeled the compromise as back-of-the-bus. They fiercely believed that the MFDP should not place politics over principle. When the delegation went to the convention that afternoon to again take seats again they found that all the chairs had been removed except three. The three remaining seats were for white delegates, and they were surrounded by security. The sixty-eight MFDP delegates stood up throughout the evening.
Elected to the House of Representatives
Henry eventually moved away from the MFDP since their views seemed to become more radical over time. He instead helped to form the Loyalist Democratic Party and chaired the delegation for the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions. Henry attempted to run for Congress in 1964, but he was accused of not having the required number of signatures to do so. In 1965 in another Freedom Vote mock election, Henry won a U.S. Senate seat. He was actually elected to the national board of directors of the NAACP. Unification of the Democratic Mississippi parties was completed in time for the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Henry was the co-chair with another delegate. In order to allow more blacks to be elected to the Mississippi legislature Henry filed suit in 1980 for redistricting. This change resulted in blacks being elected, including Henry's election to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Henry held the position from 1982 to 1996.
Although Henry's name and accomplishments are more well-known in Mississippi, his work for integration and equality for blacks was felt around the nation. He operated from grass roots to administrator, and from marching to planning in the fight against segregation and for equal rights. He directed much of his efforts to Coahoma County, but his relationships with national civil rights leaders and his fierce dedication had long-range impact. He maintained his position as president of the Mississippi NAACP until 1994 when his wife Nicolle died. Henry died in 1997 of heart failure in Clarksville, Mississippi.
Escamilla, Brian. "Aaron Henry." Contemporary Black Biography. Ed. Shirelle Phelps. Vol. 9. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 1999, 103-06.
Lowery, Charles D., and John F. Marszalek. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.
Walter, Mildred Pitts. Mississippi Challenge. New York: Bradbury Press, 1992.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: A. Robert Lovelle Book, Viking Press, 1987.
Dittmer, John. "Dr. Aaron Henry: Mississippi freedom fighter." Crisis 104 (July 1997): 25.
Thomas, Robert M. "Aaron Henry, Civil Rights Leader Dies at 74." New York Times, 21 May 1997.
Information on Aaron Henry may be found in the Mississippi Civil Rights College, Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi.
Lean'tin L. Bracks