Aaron Henry from Clarksdale
By Worth Long
Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 9-12
This is Aaron Henry and I’m from Clarksdale, have always lived here. Born outside of the city limits on a plantation called Flowers’ Brothers. It’s still out there. I grew up chopping cotton, picking cotton, slopping hogs, milking cows, doing all the things that a country boy does. No nostalgia, that’s simply the area of my beginning.
When I was a youngster, going to school out in the country, white kids were able to go to school seven months and black kids went five. Now the rationale for that was the black kids had to help cultivate and harvest the crops and do the work. Many of the white kids were sons and daughters of the plantation owners.
It was not right, from my earliest perception, that white kids would go to school seven months, we couldn’t go but five. That was one of the things I worried my mother about. I also worried her about why did I have to step back when a white person walked into a store although I was there first and why couldn’t I drink water out of certain barrels which were marked for whites. But most of all I kept on her case about the school months.
One day my momma called me. She say, “Aaron, come here.” She say, “About this five months and seven months school deal. I want you to know you my boy–and you don’t need but five. The rest of them jokers they go to have seven, but you my boy, you don’t need but five.” Hell, I been cocky ever since.
My mother was involved with the Methodist church as long as I can remember. And the white and black women of the Woman’s Society of Christian Service–they were trying to Christianize Japan–often were in our home. My parents were in their homes. When they came they brought their children. I got to learn and to know their kids just like their kids got to learn and to know me. In that way I developed very early an understanding that white folks put on their pants one leg at a time. I always had the feeling that there was no such thing as white supremacy and black inferiority.
Neighbors used to tell my momma, “This boy going to get his fool self killed. I heard him talking to Mr. So-and-so and he wasn’t being mannerable. He says ‘yes’ and ‘new’ to white folks and he don’t call them Mr. and Mrs. He don’t say ‘yazzum’ end ‘nome.’ You oughta teach him better cause he’s going to get hurt if you don’t.”
I heard it often. Neighbors come into the house–and in those days, grown people talked and they asked the
children to leave. A lady’d say, “Mattie, I got something I want to talk to you about.” Momma’d say, “Aaron, you; need to go outside for awhile.” I’d listen and I’d hear what they were saying.
In my time when a child was growing up, every adult in the neighborhood was his momma and his poppa. You messed up and they got a hold of you. When your momma come home, they told her and you got another whipping. So I was always anxious to know what they were telling momma, cause I was kinda tough. I was doing what I felt came natural being a boy: climbing trees, shooting birds, stealing watermelons and plums, all those kinds of things.
The major kind of resistance that blacks were engaged in as I grew up had to do with the farm economy and the determination of blacks to earn or to obtain what they’d earned. In many instances, the white landlord at the end of the year had the habit of not dealing fairly. Those blacks who stood up were often asked to move off the plantation. They were singled out as troublemakers. And this is where you heard the horror stories as I was a child, about how blacks were misused by whites largely because of either their unwillingness to do work that they felt was more and above the reward they would receive for it, or their demands for pay for the work that they done.
You remember the old black folksong, “When Do We Get Paid for the Work That We’ve Done?” That’s pretty much the basic reaction of blacks toward white supremacy as I grew up.
As an eleventh grade student at Coahoma County Agricultural High School, we had a teacher, a young lady who had finished school at Dillard and had done some work at Fisk. Her name was T.K. Shelby. She was very much aware of the NAACP and black life. As extra reading material she had our class engaged in stuff like The Soul of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith.
Well, at the conclusion of our junior year, she encouraged us to take out a membership in the NAACP Youth Convention–which at that time was a quarter. And most of us did.
Now that sort of ties into my further activity upon graduation from high school and the next year going directly into the armed service. The armed services in World War II, when I went in, was as segregated and discriminated as any facet of American life. Black and whites didn’t live in the same areas, didn’t eat in the same dining room, didn’t play on the same playground. We even went to the movies on separate days. It was a completely apartheid situation.
Those of us who had come into the armed services with at least a smattering of a feeling that this was legally wrong often found ourselves allying with the NAACP unit in the nearest big town. We did basic training in Fort McClellan, Alabama. There was an NAACP chapter in Anniston and one in Birmingham. That’s where we participated in trying to overcome segregation and discrimination in the armed forces. We later were billeted in California. So I just can’t remember any time in my adult life when I was not involved in trying to overcome the evils of segregation.
Now ever since I can remember anything about black life, blacks have always resented mistreatment at the hands of whites. Even during slave ship days there were blacks who jumped overboard rather than be slaves. And women who threw their children in the mouths of sharks in the water rather than have them grow up as slaves. Any of us who think that the phrases we are coining now, and the leaders that are on the scene now, and the issues that we are dealing with now, that we are the first persons of the black community to have the enlightenment to do that, we are as stupid as the fourteen year old boy who thought he discovered sex. It has been around a long time. Don’t remember when there was not a movement by the black community that said, this is wrong and we are going to overcome it.
But certainly the efforts of blacks in this state to have an equal voice and a fair share of what it was, really goes back to an organization known as the Black and Tan Republicans which was the early voice for black freedom in this state. Before Roosevelt in ’32, I’m sure most of the blacks in this state considered themselves Republican allies, because of the fact that the slave question had ended during the time we had a Republican president in the White House, Abraham Lincoln. The Republican party in the South continued to permit blacks to participate, wherein the Democratic party became a white exclusive club.
On the event of the presidential election of 1876, which brought together Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, when Hayes became President of the United States, the end of the first effort at participation began to erode because of the positions and the edicts from the White House that he began to express. And all America became energized about this segregation thing to the point where in 1896 you remember that in Plessy vs. Ferguson, although Plessy had ridden the Illinois Central Railroad train, every day when he got ready to St. Louis and sat where he wanted to, in 1896 the conductor came to Plessy and told him, “I’m sorry, but in this dining room you’ve got to sit behind the curtain.” Of course Plessy refused to sit behind the curtain and was thrown in jail. And the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that segregation was the law of the land, when it decided that as long as things are equal, they may be separate.
Restaurants had an aisle generally down the center and whites went on one side and blacks went on the other. Stores had a custom–if not a law, to always serve all the white folks present before any of the blacks were server! regardless to when who came into the store. There were
curtains on the buses which blacks sat behind and whites in front as long as there were no whites standing. If there were whites standing, the curtains were moved and the blacks who had been sitting had to stand. Blacks rode in the front car on trains, right behind the coal car with all its soot and debris. The whole system was geared toward making things as comfortable as possible for whites, and as difficult as possible for blacks.
We lived with this damnable separate but equalness from 1896 until 1954 when another Supreme Court overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson in Brown vs. Kansas. In the school desegregation case which says when you educate children and you separate them by race to do it, you commit an act that is “calculated to warp their minds in a manner never likely to be undone.” So then America turned around to some degree in 1954, but it was around 1965, ’66 and some areas as late as 1970, before the integration orders from courts and from the people themselves in the areas actually began to take effect.
White Citizens Councils were formed in response to the 1954 decision. The catalyst that ignited the White Citizen’s Council was the fact that in fourteen towns in Mississippi, immediately after the Supreme Court decision, petitions were presented signed by more than a hundred families in each area, calling upon the school boards to obey the law and integrate the public school system. Well, the response to that was that the names of the people who had signed the petitions were made public. They were published in newspapers, put upon the cages of banks and lending institutions. Most of these people became victims of economic pressure, to the extent in some places like Yazoo City, those who signed petitions Y were not able to even purchase food although they had the money.
Medgar Evers signed the petition for Jackson. Medgar was able to maneuver in the Jackson area as he did because of the allies that were there to give him encouragement and assist him in every way. Now you might recall Medgar and I became involved in the Mississippi NAACP at the same time. I was a part of a team that went to Alcorn College in 1952 to help encourage Medgar to come to work for an organization known as the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, whose president was Dr. T.R.M. Howard of Mound Bayou. I served as secretary of that institution. Dr. Howard was also the- president of an organization known as the Regional Council of Negro Leadership which was touted by many newspapers as the home grown NAACP. And that was a pretty good characterization of it.
Upon graduation, Medgar agreed to come to Magnolia Mutual. He worked for a year with us and the abilities of the young fellow were so evident that anybody who came in contact with him immediately recognized that there was something great in this particular individual.
The first NAACP unit in Mississippi was organized in Vicksburg in 1918, about nine years after the organization was founded in Springfield, Missouri. In the early 1950’s there was strong talk that Mississippi needed someone to coordinate the efforts of fourteen or fifteen NAACP branches in the state. Ruby Hurley, who had been invited into Clarksdale in 1953 to help organize an NAACP here, had met Medgar. Dr. Howard was very willing that Medgar go to the NAACP as field secretary because this was a sort of rising-tide-that-lifts-all-boats type of philosophy. Medgar understood that every branch president must understand that you are to be enraged and involved in those issues that make it possible for the progress of the black community to come up to the standards that you yourself feel that it ought.
Medgar and I travelled over this state together a tremendous amount. We had three real intimate years of working together, working with each other, from the time I became president of the Mississippi state conference in 1960 until Medgar was killed in June of 1963.
We had gotten word that the Klan was determined to get both of us. They were going to take us off one at a time. They were going to flip a coin and see who went first. About fifteen, sixteen persons were marked for extinction–Dr. Edward Stringer from Columbus, Dr. Howard, Amzie Moore from Cleveland, Gilbert Mason from Gulfport, Vernon Dahmer from Hattiesburg, Gus Courts who was shot in his grocery store at Belzoni and after that he went to Chicago, and several others. I guess that’s the mark of effectiveness.
You know I’ve made my peace with God a long time ago. By the time I got involved in the NAACP, it had been my blessing to have finished one of the major universities in this country and to have gone into the pharmaceutical business in a way that I could give some comfort and some relief to thousands of people who either had not had the chance, that I had, or had not taken advantage of the chances that I had. I have taken a position that I’m God’s child, and I’ve never really feared the difficulties of the movement. You know we’ve had several things here. We’ve had the house bombed. The piece of tin you see up there in the store now a result of the last bombing of the drugstore. We do that to keep reminding ourselves as to what the situation has been, and what it can be.
To show you what justice can come to, I’ll tell you a story that begins in 1963. SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC were determined to offset the vituperation that was being expressed by Senator Stennis, Senator Eastland, Jamie Whitten and other members of the Mississippi congressional delegation on Capitol Hill. They said that if you give blacks the right to vote, they won’t use it. We decided that we would put that lie to rest. We would run for governor.
We organized the Freedom Vote Campaign which had as its main instrument a little newspaper, The Free Press. Medgar Evers, R.L.T. Smith, Bill Minor and several other people were involved in the Free Press. It was the instrument that we used to alert people throughout the state that the Freedom Vote was going to take place.
I also went down to WLBT television in Jackson and asked the manager for the opportunity to buy time to run my campaign. He looked at me and said, “Niggah, you know we ain’t go’n sell you no time on TV for no political campaign. We don’t sell black folks no time.”
I said, “Well, I’m running and I came by to ask you.”
That night I went back to a mass meeting and reported the fact that the man at the television station wouldn’t sell me no time, and what he had said to me. The National Council of Churches had a cadre of folks in the state at
that time from all branches and religions. Their communications director told me, “I know you don’t like to be called a niggah, but I would like for you to go back down there with me tomorrow. If this is the answer we get again, the United Church of Christ will move to divest the station of its license. This is blatant racism and is against the rules and regulations of the FCC.”
So we walked in the next morning. The cat looked over the room and saw me and said, “Look niggah, I told you yesterday,” he said yestiddy, “we wadn’t gotn sell you any damn time, and here you are back today with a damn yankee.”
I said, “Well, all right. I just come back to try.”
We walked out. The suit was filed. We fought it from 1963, won the revoking of the license and finally the privilege to operate the station in 1979—that’s fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of fighting. The niggah that they wouldn’t sell time to in 1963 today sits as the chairman of the board of directors of that damn television station.
But anyway, when we decided to do the Freedom Vote Campaign in 1963, we set a date and put ballot boxes in churches and stores. There was one here in this drug store. In all the places where black folks congregated. And out of that effort we garnered the participation of better than ninety-thousand blacks, who registered before God and everybody, that if they had the right to vote then they would. And this was one of the very strong pieces of evidence that we used in arguing for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ninety-thousand blacks in Mississippi who knew that their votes couldn’t count but who were willing to cast them to demonstrate their concern for the right to vote.
The following autobiographical recollections of Aaron Henry (born 1922 in Coahoma County, Mississippi) sketch his involvement in the movement for black civil rights up to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Presented here in an excerpted and edited form, this interview, conducted earlier this year by Worth Long, is one in a series documenting the modern civil rights movement in the Deep South. Worth Long is director of the SRC’s Civil Rights Radio Project.