Henry, Aaron 1922–1997
Aaron Henry 1922–1997
NAACP leader, civil rights leader, politician
A fiery, outspoken civil rights leader, Aaron Henry was also a moderate who sought to heal the wounds that divided blacks and whites in the 1960s. For more than thirty years, Henry was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi and was on the front lines of virtually every civil rights event of the era. By his own account, he was arrested 38 times in the effort to secure equal rights for African Americans. Most of these arrests occurred in Henry’s home state of Mississippi, which zealously supported segregation. Overwhelmingly elected governor of Mississippi in a “mock” election in 1964, Henry would eventually serve his state as a legislator. His death in 1997 marked the end of a prestigious life shaped by the fight for racial equality.
Aaron Edd Henry was born in Dublin, Mississippi on July 2, 1922, the son of Edd, a sharecropper, and his wife Mattie Logan. After attending high school in nearby Clarksdale, Henry enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Hawaii. While there, he took part in his first protest by initiating a demand for integrated military housing. Henry later recalled that his grandmother had instilled in him the notion that he was as worthy of justice as any white man. “They put on their pants the same way you do,” she told him according to his New York Times obituary, “one leg at a time.”
Following his discharge from the Army, Henry attended Xavier University in New Orleans on the G.I. Bill. He quickly demonstrated his leadership abilities at Xavier, serving as student body president and president of his junior and senior classes. In 1950, with a pharmaceutical degree in hand, Henry and an Xavier classmate returned to Clarksdale and opened a pharmacy. Henry’s new role as a successful businessman soon propelled him to a leadership position within the local black community.
In 1954, Henry joined the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. By 1960, his fierce determination to fight segregation led to his election as president of the state chapter, an office he would hold until stepping down in 1993. A year after joining the NAACP, Henry organized the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Designed to unify and coordinate the activities of the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
At a Glance…
Born Aaron Edd Henry July 2, 1922 in Dublin, Mississippi to Edd, a sharecropper, and Mattie Logan Henry. Married Noelle Michael, 1950 (died 1994); children: Rebecca. Education:Xavier university, B.A.
Career: Civil rights leader; opened pharmacy in Clarks-dale, Mississippi with Xavier classmate, 1950; joined National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1954; founded Council of Federated Organization (COFO), 1955; elected president of the Mississippi chapter of NAACP, 1960; arrested in Freedom Rider protest, 1961; organized boycott of stores in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1961; won “mock” election as governor of Mississippi, 1963; helped found Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), 1964; selected as “at-large” delegate at Democratic National Convention, 1964; helped to organize Loyalist Democratic party in Mississippi, 1965; chaired the Loyalist delegation at the Democratic National Convention, 1968 and 1972; co-chaired the Mississippi delegation at Democratic National Convention, 1976; elected to Mississippi House of Representatives, 1982-96.
(SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Council lay dormant for years until the early 1960s, when they initiated large-scale voter registration and adult education.
COFO also became involved in the defense of the Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were a group of black and white activists who were organized by CORE to protest the existence of segregated interstate bus facilities. Although the Supreme Court ordered the integration of all bus stations and terminals serving interstate travelers in December of 1960, blacks in the Deep South who tried to use bus terminal facilities designated for whites or use the front seats of buses were often beaten, thrown off the bus, or jailed. In May of 1961, the Freedom Riders began their protest in Washington, DC and rode the Trailways and Greyhound bus systems to New Orleans, with the white protesters sitting in the back seats and the black protestors sitting up front. If challenged, the black protestors would refuse to give up their front seats. Additionally, at each station or terminal, blacks would attempt to use whites-only facilities. Along the route, the protest was marked by violence as segregationists confronted the Riders at nearly every stop. When the Riders arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, Henry was among those arrested.
In late 1961, Henry initiated a boycott against stores in Clarksdale that refused to hire black workers or discriminated against black customers. City officials responded by arresting Henry and six other protestors on the grounds of “conspiring to withhold trade.” Although Henry and the others were convicted in local courts, the convictions were reversed on appeal and the boycott continued. Henry was then arrested on what he called a “trumped-up” charge of sexually harassing a white hitchhiker, for which he was convicted in March of 1962. An appeals court eventually reversed the conviction. When Henry claimed that the local prosecutor and police chief falsified the sexual harassment charge on the basis of his civil rights activities, the two men sued him and were awarded $80,000. The appeals court again reversed the decision. By the time the boycott ended, Henry’s pharmacy had been firebombed and his wife Noelle was fired from her job as a public school teacher.
In June of 1963, the civil rights community in Mississippi was dealt a serious blow when leader Medgar Evers was murdered in the driveway of his home after taking Henry to the airport. The two close friends had met in the early 1950s and Henry vigorously supported Evers in his quest to become field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. Henry was later told that a flip of a coin had determined that it would be Evers who was assassinated and not him. “Ever since Medgar died,” Henry is quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary, “I have been making sure he didn’t die in vain.”
In the fall of 1963, under the auspices of COFO, a mock election was held for the office of governor of Mississippi. Voter registration tests that were biased against blacks and violent attacks against voter registration workers had severely hampered the ability of blacks to participate in elections. In response, the Freedom Vote was staged. Henry ran as a candidate for governor with Edwin King, a white chaplain at the all-black Tougaloo College, as lieutenant governor. Unofficial freedom ballots were printed and distributed in churches and meeting places. The Henry-King duo won the election handily. Roughly 80,000 blacks had participated in the mock election, nearly three times the number of officially registered black voters.
The success of the mock election encouraged the SNCC and COFO to increase their voter registration efforts. They designated the summer of 1964 as Freedom Summer and began a massive voter registration campaign with the help of 800 volunteers, many of whom were white college students from the North. Also that summer, Henry co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a biracial coalition which challenged the exclusion of black members by the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Henry was elected chairperson of the MFDP, whose principal goal was to have a delegation seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Although the MFDP had chosen 68 delegates to attend the convention, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson declared that they would not be allowed to participate. In addition, the attorney general of Mississippi issued an injunction against the MFDP delegates and threatened to jail any who tried to attend the convention. The MFDP delegates, including Henry, ignored the injunction and traveled to the convention. They received support from delegates from other states, who insisted that the MFDP delegates be seated on the convention floor. After a three-day standoff, a compromise was reached. The MFDP delegates were offered “at-large” status which would not allow them to vote for a candidate or represent any state. The delegates refused this compromise.
A second compromise was offered which gave “at-large” delegate status only to Henry and Edwin King. This development angered and insulted the other MFDP delegates. “It’s a token of rights on the back row that we get in Mississippi,” outspoken leader Fannie Lou Hamer is quoted as saying in Mississippi Challenge. “We didn’t come all this way for that mess again.” The compromise, however, was accepted without the knowledge of the MFDP delegates. On the first night of the convention, the MFDP delegates arrived and took the seats of the regular Mississippi delegates, which created a stir. The next morning, Henry, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Wayne Morris tried to convince the rest of the MFDP delegates to accept the compromise. They still refused and at the convention that night, they arrived to find all of the seats in the Mississippi section removed except for three, where the white delegates sat surrounded by security guards. The 68 MFDP delegates remained and stood throughout the evening.
Later in 1964, Henry attempted to run for Congress as an independent, as did Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine. However, election officials claimed that the candidates had failed to obtain the required number of signatures to put their names on the ballot. The next year, Henry won another Freedom Vote mock election for the U.S. Senate and was elected to the national board of directors of the NAACP. In addition, Henry sensed that the MFDP was becoming too radical and did not represent his more moderate views. He left the MFDP and helped to form the Loyalist Democrats, a group of blacks, white liberals, and organized labor activists who sought to distinguish themselves from the conservative “regular” democrats. Henry became a chief architect for the new party and chaired the Loyalist delegation to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions.
Henry eventually initiated a unification program with the regular democrats in which the two sides would split convention delegates and positions on the party executive committee. Complete unification was accomplished in time for the 1976 Democratic National Convention which was co-chaired by Henry and a regular democrat. This unification paved the way for more blacks to be elected to the state legislature. In 1980, Henry filed a lawsuit which led to the reapportionment of districts and allowed for the election of more representatives. Henry was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1982 and held the seat until 1996.
Although Aaron Henry’s name is largely unknown outside his home state of Mississippi, his impact on civil rights in that state and around the country is undeniable. For Henry, there was no such thing as a small victory and each victory usually led to an even greater success. “I think,” Henry told Historic World Leaders, “that every time a man stands for an ideal or speaks out against injustice, he sends out a tiny ripple of hope.”
Carrow, David J., Bearing the Cross, Vintage Books, 1996.
Lowery Charles D. and John F. Marszalek, eds., Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, Greenwood Press, 1992.
Maisel, Sandy L., ed., Political Parties and Elections in the United States, Garland Publishing, 1991.
Nossiter, Adam, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994.
Parker, Frank R., Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965, University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Salter, John JR., Jr., Jackson Mississippi, Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., 1987.
Sitkoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980, Hill and Wang, 1981.
Stern, Mark, Calculating Visions: Kennedy, Johnson, and Civil Rights, Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, Aladdin Paperbacks, 1992.
Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, Penguin Books, 1987.
Jet, June 9, 1997, p. 55.
New York Times, May 21, 1997, p. D-23.
Time, June 2, 1997, p. 27.
Aaron Henry (born 1922) a champion of civil rights, leader the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, he is one of the most revered civil rights leaders in Mississippi.
Described by one biographer as "the oldest, best known, and most respected civil rights activist in Mississippi," Aaron Henry has served as president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP since 1960. Henry grew up near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and later earned a degree in political science at Xavier University in New Orleans. During World War II, he served as a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army in the Pacific. After the war, the African American veteran attended pharmacy school, and eventually returned to Clarksdale to open a drug store.
As a leader of the NAACP, Henry participated in virtually every aspect of the struggle for equality in Mississippi, while serving as a voice of moderation and an advocate of racial conciliation. In 1961, he joined the Freedom Rides to protest segregation in interstate bus facilities and was arrested when the group reached Jackson, Mississippi. Two years later, Henry ran for governor—and won handily—in the Freedom Vote, a mock election held to demonstrate African American interest in politics and to mobilize the African American community for further political action. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Henry served as chairperson of the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella agency which attempted to coordinate the activities of the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality. Under his leadership, the various civil rights organizations launched a large-scale voter registration drive and conducted "Freedom Schools," which combined adult education with training in community activism.
When African American activists and white liberals organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, they elected Henry chairperson of the biracial coalition, and he led the MFDP's challenge to the seating of the regular Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The leadership of the national party proposed a compromise under which the regulars would be seated along with Henry and Ed King, the white chaplain at Tougaloo College and a member of the MFDP. In addition, the compromise would have prohibited the exclusion of blacks or other minorities from future delegations. Henry and other moderate NAACP members within his delegation supported the compromise, but they were outvoted by more militant activists whose primary loyalty was to the MFDP itself. Nevertheless, Henry believed that the highly publicized attack on the exclusion of blacks from the Mississippi Democratic Party represented a significant moral victory for the forces of change. The MFDP challenge, Henry said later, "Wrote the beginning of the restructuring of politics in the nation." Indeed, in 1965, the NAACP withdrew support for COFO, and formed a new coalition with white liberals and organized labor. Known as the Loyalist Democrats, to distinguish themselves from Mississippi's conservative white Democrats who often bolted the national party to support Republican and third-party candidates, the new coalition won the right to represent Mississippi at the Democratic convention in 1968. By the 1970s, the Loyalists had gained a dominant role within the state party organization.
Henry Elected to NAACP National Board
In 1964, Henry attempted to run for Congress as an independent, but white election officials ruled that the NAACP leader, along with other African American candidates, failed to obtain the required number of signatures on the petitions to put their names on the ballot. In another "Freedom Vote" in 1965, however, Henry overwhelmingly defeated incumbent John C. Stennis in a mock election for the U.S. Senate. In the same year, Henry was also elected to the national board of directors of the NAACP.
A subject of frequent abuse for his civil rights views, Henry was convicted in March 1962 for sexually harassing a young white hitchhiker. An appellate court reversed the conviction. When Henry claimed he had been the victim of a racial vendetta by the local prosecutor and police chief, the white officials sued him and won an $80,000 award. The jury verdict, however, was also reversed on appeal. Henry fended off the legal threats, but white supremacists bombed his home and his drugstore, and his wife was fired from her job as a public school teacher. Through three tumultuous decades, the steady, modest Henry endured. "I think," he said, "that every time a man stands for an ideal or speaks out against injustice, he sends out a tiny ripple of hope." In 1982, Henry was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives.
One of the founding members of Rural America, Henry served on its board from 1967-1989. He served as Rural America's Board Chairman from 1983-1989. □