Henry (seated at center) at the 1964 Democratic National Convention Aaron Henry (July 2, 1922 - May 19, 1997) was an American civil rights leader, politician, and head of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP. He was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which tried to seat their delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Henry was born in Dublin, Mississippi to Ed and Mattie Henry who were sharecroppers. He enlisted in the Army after high school and later attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans on the GI Bill. He graduated with a degree in Pharmacy, and opened a drug store in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Regional Council of Negro Leadership
In 1951, Henry was a founding member of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL). The main instigator and head of the organization was Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a prominent black surgeon, fraternal organization leader, and entrepreneur in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
The RCNL promoted a program of civil rights, voting rights, self-help, and business ownership. Instead of starting from the grass roots," it sought to reach the masses through their chosen leaders by harnessing the talents of blacks with a proven record in business, the professions, education, and the church. Henry headed the RCNL's committee on "Separate but equal" which zeroed in on the need to guarantee the "equal."
Other key members of the RCNL included Amzie Moore, an NAACP activist and gas station owner from Cleveland, Mississippi and Medgar Evers, who sold insurance for Dr. Howard in Mound Bayou. Henry aided the RCNL's boycott of service stations that failed to provide restrooms for blacks. As part of this campaign, the RCNL distributed an estimated twenty thousand bumper stickers with the slogan Don t Buy Gas Where You Can t Use the Rest Room." Beginning in 1953, it directly challenged separate but equal policies and demanded integration of schools.
Henry participated in the RCNL s annual meetings in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1955, which often attracted crowds of over ten thousand.
Frequently a target of racist violence, Henry was arrested in Clarksdale repeatedly, and in one famous incident was chained to the rear of a city garbage truck and led through the streets of Clarksdale to jail.
1960s Civil Rights Movement activism
While Henry remained active in the RCNL until its demise in the early 1960s, he also joined the Mississippi branch of the NAACP in 1954 eventually becoming state president in 1959. He started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). In 1961 he organized a boycott of stores in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area that discriminated against African Americans both as customers and employees. He chaired delegations of Loyalist Democrats to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions.
In 1962, he was arrested for picking up an eighteen-year-old young man from Memphis, Tennessee. By 1968, after several appeals, the charge was not voided. In 1972, he was arrested again for soliciting sodomy from two undercover policemen. In the 1980s, although still married to a woman, the bisexual Henry lived with another young man, Gullum Erwin, near the Capitol Building.
Henry was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1982, holding the seat until 1996.
- John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994 book).
- Aaron Henry with Constance W. Curry, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
- Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995 book).