Henry, Aaron

Aaron Henry, one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement, grew up in Clarksdale (742 Garfield).

Henry joined the military after attending high school in Clarksdale, and upon leaving the service he attended Xavier University and became a pharmacist. He opened a pharmacy in Clarksdale known as the Fourth Street Pharmacy. In 1952, a local chapter of the NAACP was formed with Henry as the group’s first president. Henry also spearheaded the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Apparently in response to the successes of civil rights leaders such as Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers, the mayor of Clarksdale refused to allow blacks in the 1961 Christmas parade, which was a tradition for the town. In response, Henry sponsored a Christmas season boycott of downtown Clarksdale in 1961. Downtown Clarksdale stores were heavily dependent on black trade, and the boycott had immediate and long lasting effects. The slogan was: “If we can’t parade downtown, we won’t trade downtown.” The boycott continued for three years, with Henry being arrested and jailed for his involvement.

The MFDP in 1964 chose sixty-eight 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 was accepted that allowed only Henry and another activist, Edwin King, to vote. Henry ran for Congress later that year but was thwarted by state election officials for an insufficient number of ballot signatures.

Due to a dislike of the radical direction of the MFDP, Henry 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. Aaron Henry died in 1997.

Sources:

Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California P, 1995.

Henry, Aaron, and Curry Constance. Aaron Henry: the Fire Ever Burning. Jackson: University P of Mississippi, 2000.