In cleaning out my office today, I discovered a pair of old black and white photos from my childhood. I was probably a year old in the arms of Aaron Henry, a famous civil rights leader. My grandmother, who hosted Henry in her home, who was a district-level politician in Chelsea in New York City at the height of the 60s. She was progress, well-known, and well-respected. Yes, being radical is in my genetic code. Here is the text of the note my mother sent me with the pictures:
The occasion of the photographs was a trip Aaron Henry made to NYC to seek support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s admission to the 1964 Democratic National Convention as the legitimate representatives of Mississippi Democrats. I believe at the time he was Chairman of the party.
Grandma had arranged the meeting, which was held at a small hall on 23rd St., with the NY Democratic leadership. Aaron Henry began his speech with the lyrics from South Pacific — “You’ve got to be taught….”
He stayed the weekend with her, solidifying the support of these natural allies, the Reform Democrats. Of course it’s now an established event of history, but at the time they were by no means secure in the vote at the convention and I like to think our efforts helped. Just as Grandma helped Ed Koch break the back of Tammany Hall, admission of the Mississippi Freedom Party broke the Dixiecrats across the South. They were the first and it was easily sailing — relatively — after that. I don’t mean to make light of the work done by others; it just wasn’t so terribly dangerous anymore.
He was a gentle man, with great respect for Grandma. He had a deep chest and a full voice with none of the preacher character so common in the non-violence movement. He spoke more like DuBois than King, with that academic quality of rationalism instead of emotion. He was a very practical man, as astute in making allies as he was committed to his constituency.
Ok, so I don’t agree with some of what my mom wrote to me, but that’s neither here nor there.
When I received these pics a few years ago, information about Henry wasn’t readily available. I’ve since learned (or copied from somewhere):
Aaron Henry was the Mississippi state president of NAACP for over 30 years. He was one of the people who started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP was an interracial organization whose goal was to replace the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party and seat black delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. After a lot of LBJ politicking, the MFDP was given two seats at the convention with no power to vote, a compromise authored by Walter Mondale. Henry was one of the two people given a seat. The MFDP rejected the compromise. He did attend the 1968 and 1972 DNC.
Here is a quote from a statement he made in 1964 to reporters in Atlantic City regarding the DNC controversy:
Now, Lyndon [Johnson] 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.
Aaron Henry served in the Mississippi State House of Representatives from 1982-1996. During that time, he introduced legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag and continued to call for the reopening of the murder case for Medgar Evers (who was murdered after taking Henry to the airport).
According to the African American Registry, he faced recurring death threats, thirty-three stints in jail, and Klan violence of his home and drugstore in the course of his lifetime.
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.
The New York Times obituary calls him “gruff” and “blunt speaking.” The obituary details some of his interesting accomplishments For instance, a large television network refused to sell him air time for a political campaign. He sued. The Supreme Court stripped the station of its license and he bought it, making it the first black-owned station in the state.
One of my favorite quotes from him is “Every time a man stands for an ideal or speaks out against injustice, he sends out a tiny ripple of hope.”
Links and Resources:
He co-authored a biography with Constance Curry called Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning.
There is a Dr. Aaron Henry Leadership Award given by the Community Transportation Association; he had been a board member for the organization. Several well-known politicians and community leaders have received this award including Mary Landrieu and Carol Moseley Braun.
The University of Southern Mississipi digital collection has a picture of his drugstore from 1964.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Documenting the American South” collection has an oral history interview with him from 1974.
Aaron Henry testifying before the certification committee in order to be seated at the 1964 DNC.
The Southern Poverty Law Center named him as one of the 9 people who were the backbone of the civil rights movement.
An article in the Providence Studies On Humanities and Social Sciences on the press representation of the MFDP at the 1964 DNC gives a good explanation of some of the politicking that went on.
His papers were deposited with the Labor History Archives in October 1969 and October 1970.