Aaron Henry (1922 - 1997)
"From the very beginning,” Aaron Henry commented, “I had been an 'uppity' [so-and-so]” in the minds of Mississippi whites. But, “until 1962, most of the harassment and intimidation of me and my family had been . . . anonymous telephone calls and occasional verbal abuses on the streets.”
Known affectionately as “Doc,” Henry was the son of sharecroppers. When he was growing up, he and his birth family labored in cotton fields. (“As far back as I can remember, I have detested everything about growing cotton,” he subsequently remarked.) After WWII, the US Army veteran trained as a pharmacist and opened his Clarksdale 4th St. Drug Store. It became “the hub,” he remembered, “for political and civil rights planning.” In 1959, he was elected president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Also, during that time period, as a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he collaborated with Martin Luther King, Jr. After his pal Medgar Evers, the NAACP's field secretary in Mississippi, was gunned down in Jackson in '63, Henry became the state's lead vocalist and action figure for equality.
His prominence brought danger. In 1961, when Clarksdale blacks were denied participation in the town's annual Christmas parade, Henry organized a boycott of downtown shops. It denied retailers crucial business. “If we can't parade downtown,” rally-cried protesters demanding voting rights and integration, “we won't trade downtown!” In the midst of the lengthy boycott, his drug store was attacked and his house firebombed.
Henry was instrumental in politically empowering African Americans. During 1963, in a campaign called “freedom vote,” which he co-organized, he ran for governor. (The following year, for a second "freedom vote," he ran again for office, this time for US Senator.) The 1963 effort was a mock election held simultaneously with a gubernatorial election that excluded black voters. “Mock” it may have been, but it produced real results. When over 80,000 blacks turned out to cast their ballots, it evidenced that African Americans would vote if allowed to do so and helped pave the way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To break the stranglehold of racism on his state's political affairs, Henry, with other key players, formed the interracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which he chaired. In 1964, during what was called “Freedom Summer,” MFDP members worked to unseat Mississippi's “boll weevils,” the segregationist all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention held in August. Those delegation members, referred to as the "regulars," were picked through a process that illegally and systematically excluded blacks (and poor whites).
The effort to unseat the segregationists met with less-than-desired results. Democrat President Lyndon Johnson, who opposed seating the MFDP at the convention (and kept tabs on its members by illegally ordering their phones tapped and rooms bugged), feared alienating southern whites in the up-coming national election. By mid-week of the convention, through pressure, which the President and his operatives applied, the convention's Credentials Committee produced a final compromise. Its purpose was to block a proposal to seat MFDP delegates and Mississippi regulars who would pledge to support Johnson, the party's presidential candidate. The committee's deal included seating the white regulars, while awarding the MFDP only two at-large seats—one to Henry, the other to white chaplain, Edwin King. Others from the group would be allowed to attend the procedings as non-voting guests.
To gain compliance, enforcers of Democratic Party power coerced MFDP supporters. For instance, if they didn't go along with the compromise, one small business-owner was threatened with having a crucial bank loan canceled and another MFDP backer was informed that he would loose his government job. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was warned that funding for his civil rights activities was "on the line" if he didn't get on board. Without consulting the MFDP, and before its delegates met formally to vote to reject Johnson's offer, a Democratic official falsely announced on-air that the civil rights group had accepted the compromise.
On Wednesday, August 26, of convention week, MFDP members went to the convention floor, as they had on the previous day, but, this time, they found the chairs in the Mississippi section removed. (The racist Mississippi regulars had already gone home.) John Lewis, now a member of Congress, was then chair of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the civil rights groups that supported the MFDP. About that day, he recalled, "And so they stood there in that vacant space, this tiny group of men and women, forlorn and abandoned, watching silently as Lyndon Johnson was nominated for president by acclamation."
Regarding the compromise that shut out the MFDP delegates, one member, the renowned civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer succinctly declared, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired." Aaron Henry, who viewed the deal as a type of victory, nevertheless, later, explained why the MFDP spurned it: "Now Lyndon made the typical white man's mistake: Not only did he say, 'You've got two votes,' which was too little, but he told us to whom the two votes would go. He'd give me one and Ed King one; that would satisfy. But, you see, he didn't realize that sixty-four of us came up from Mississippi on a Greyhound bus, eating cheese and crackers and bologna all the way there; we didn't have no money. Suffering the same way. We got to Atlantic City; we put up in a little hotel, three or four of us in a bed, four or five of us on the floor. You know, we suffered a common kind of experience, the whole thing. But now, what kind of fool am I, or what kind of fool would Ed have been, to accept gratuities for ourselves? You say, Ed and Aaron can get in but the other sixty-two can't. This is typical white man picking black folks' leaders, and that day is just gone." However, he felt that they “learned a great deal about the way things work up in the world of high-level politics—heartbreak and all.”
By 1979 Mississippi's political winds blew more justly. That year Henry was elected to the State House of Representatives and served there until 1996.
Because of his civil rights activism, Henry was arrested over thirty times. But he felt that his arrest in 1962 premiered a different sort of scare tactic. He was apprehended and declared guilty of making homosexual advances toward a young white hitchhiker named Sterling Lee Eilert. The verdict came at a time that, in Henry's words, “marked an interesting point in the history of intimidation of civil rights workers. No longer were bigoted officials satisfied with trying to brand us as communist,” a charge that was “getting old.” “So they picked a new charge—one detested equally by whites and Negroes—homosexuality.” Certainly, an ugly precedent had been set when, in 1961, risking life and limb to integrate Dixie-bound buses, freedom riders were gay-baited.
Over the years, Henry would be arrested four times on charges of sexual involvement with men. (This, even though he had a wife to whom he stayed committed.) While serving in the state legislature he lived with “Pedro” Erwin in a relationship that was hardly secret. The younger man often was noticed in the House gallery waiting for his legislator.
1. John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 158, http://books.google.com/books?id=q077jM9qDvwC&pg=PA161&lpg=PA161&dq=aaron+henry+arrested+homosexuality&source=bl&ots=SlyBxNXpce&sig=_WikrOaLXMy_7cSkf-ENfHhf_0U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=viHaUJnGDLLK0AHWqYCAAw&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=aaron%20henry%20arrested%20homosexuality&f=false.
2. Howard, 158.
3. Howard, 158.
4. Constance Curry, “Aaron Henry: A Civil Rights Leader of the 20th Century,” Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/363/aaron-henry-a-civil-rights-leader-of-the-20th-century.
5. Aaron Henry and Constance Curry, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning (N.p.: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 69, http://books.google.com/books?id=GXZM7oFIPxkC&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69&d.q=%22hub+for+political+and+civil+rights+planning%22+aaron+henry&source=bl&ots=F-XCeOw7Pb&sig=dfUlqWBOro8ixv2YrH8mNnQFs4s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=c_4PUYvJJ8Hw0gH7kYDYBA&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=%22hub%20for%20political%20and%20civil%20rights%20planning%22%20aaron%20henry&f=false.
6. Howard, 158.
7. “Aaron Henry,” Mississippi Civil Rights Project: History County by County, http://mscivilrightsproject.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=241:aaron-henry&catid=164:person&Itemid=22.
8. Mississippi History Now, n.p.
9. James P. Marshall, Student Activism and Civil Rights in Mississippi: Protest Politics and the Struggle for Racial Justice, 1960-1965 ([Baton Rouge]: Louisiana State University, 2013), , http://books.google.com/books?id=63tA6oI8_EYC&pg=PT152&lpg=PT152&dq=aaron+henry+senate+hamer+second+congressional+district++1964&source=bl&ots=-pmBBoDmT6&sig=Ng21R-y6UmO0msqKefANMIh6X2k&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gnN2UqDXJqa_sQSc-IDQBg&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=aaron%20henry%20senate%20hamer%20second%20congressional%20district%20%201964&f=false.
10. Mississippi History Now, n.p.
11. “Freedom Summer (1964),” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_freedom_summer_1964/.
12. Mississippi History Now, n.p.
13. Howard, 165.
14. "MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention," We'll Never Turn Back: History and Timeline of the Southern Freedom Movement 1951-1968, 9, PDF, http://www.crmvet.org/info/mfdp_atlantic.pdf.
15. "MFDP," 8.
16. "MFDP," 4.
17. "MFDP," 6.
18. "MFDP," 9.
19. "MFDP," 8.
20. "MFDP," 9.
21. "MFDP," 9.
22. "MFDP," 11.
23. "MFDP," 10.
24. [Aaron Henry] "Aaron Henry explaining why the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party refused the two seats offered at the 1964 Democratic National Convention," Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in Ordinary People Leading Extraordinary Lives: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Mississippi Humanities Council and others, http://www.usm.edu/crdp/html/cd/mfdp.htm.
25. The Fire Ever Burning, 198.
26. Mississippi History Now, n.p.
27. Mississippi History Now, n.p.
28. Howard, 160.
29. Howard, 161.
30. Howard, 161.
31. Howard, 161.
32. Howard, 165.
33. Howard, 164.
34. Marshall, .
35. Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (N.p.: University of Illinois, 2000), 109, http://books.google.com/books?id=gx2ZcDNUWAAC&pg=PA109&lpg=PA109&dq=freedom+vote+trounced+hamer+1964&source=bl&ots=duGtJPMco4&sig=2aGf3nhgV3VPKX5r1ECYdtEscvQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=iKh3UqK_K_fNsQSbj4CQBA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=freedom%20vote%20trounced%20hamer%201964&f=false.
36. Lee, 109.
37. "MFDP," 10.