Biography of Aaron Henry
Bith Date: July 2, 1922
Death Date: 1997
Place of Birth: Dublin, Mississippi, United States
Occupations: civil rights activist
Aaron Henry (1922-97), a champion of civil rights, leader the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, was 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 served as president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP starting in 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. In the spring of 1997 Henry suffered heart failure and died in Clarksdale, Mississippi.