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Aaron Henry was born on this date in 1922. He was an African American civil rights leader, politician, and head of the NAACP.
From Dublin, Mississippi, born in the age of Jim Crow Laws in the Mississippi Delta, he was the son of the sharecropper family of Edward and Mattie Henry. After high school, Aaron enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Hawaii. He attended Xavier University in New Orleans on the GI Bill, becoming president of his junior and senior class, and graduating with a degree in Pharmacy. In 1954, Henry joined the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, becoming their state president in 1959. He was able, more than any previous leader; to unite Mississippi Blacks, despite diversities of age, ideology, and class, in confronting white supremacy.
He spearheaded the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Some activists criticized him for urging protesters to take the middle ground between the NAACP's conservative position and SNCC's militant activism. Facing recurring death threats, thirty-three stints in jail, and Ku Klux Klan violence of his home and drugstore, Henry remained stalwart and courageous. In 1961, he put together a boycott of stores in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area that refused to hire Black workers and discriminated against Black customers. He and six others were arrested for “conspiring to withhold trade.”
These charges were eventually reversed on appeal but another charge, of sexual harassment, against Henry, came soon after. While he was fighting this case, which he eventually won, (he was sued for $80,000), his pharmacy was firebombed and his wife, Nicole, was terminated from her position as a public school teacher. Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 after taking him to the airport. Henry later said, “I have been making sure he didn’t die in vain.”
The MFDP in 1964 chose 68 delegates to attend the state Democratic Convention. President Johnson declared that they would not be allowed to attend and the Mississippi state attorney general issued an injunction threatening to jail any of the MFDP delegates who tried to attend. After a three-day stand off, a compromise measure, with only Henry and Edwin King being allowed to vote, was accepted.
Henry ran for Congress later that year, but was thwarted by state election officials for an insufficient number of ballot signatures. Soon, due to a dislike of the radical direction of the MFDP, he left the organization, creating the Loyalist Democrats and chairing their delegations to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions. He eventually initiated a unification program with the national Democratic Party. Henry was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1982, holding the seat until 1996. He has been described as a "conservative militant," willing not only to risk his life but also to compromise on issues of strategy even when doing so led to alienation from outspoken activists. Aaron Henry died in 1997.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York