Aaron Edd Henry, a pharmacist, civil rights activist, entrepreneur, and Mississippi political leader, was born on a plantation outside Clarksdale. His parents died before he was six years old, and a maternal uncle, Ed Henry, reared him. His uncle was a cobbler with relative independence, inspiring Aaron to become an independent businessman. He and his family moved to Clarksdale, where he completed elementary school. In the absence of a high school for African Americans, he attended the nearby boarding school at Coahoma.
Henry enlisted in the army in 1942 and after serving as a truck driver returned to Clarksdale in 1946. He immediately registered to vote and proudly noted that the 1946 mayoral election was his first exercise of the franchise. Even then, he exhorted others to join him. He went on to study pharmacy at Xavier University, graduating in 1950 and opening the Fourth Street Drug Store in Clarksdale. His business prospered, and his store became the hub of a broad range of social and political activity, particularly after he established a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1953.
Over the next thirty-five years Henry became one of the state’s most powerful political leaders. He assumed the presidency of the state NAACP in 1960 and held the office for more than thirty years. In the early 1960s his hometown chapter anchored a widespread social movement challenging racial exclusion in Clarksdale. He led NAACP members in demonstrations and boycotts against virtually every segregated public facility and merchant in the small town.
Henry subsequently led a statewide movement organized around the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella group of other civil rights groups that worked to overturn social and political segregation. Henry stood at the center of most major state mobilization campaigns through the 1960s, including leadership of two challenges to the segregated Democratic Party (the Regulars), which was unseated at the 1968 national convention. He led the new Loyalist faction in gaining control of the party, thus demolishing a century-old racially exclusive hierarchy. He served first as chair of the Mississippi Party and then as cochair when the Loyalists and Regulars merged. In the interim he also achieved great influence within the national Democratic Party, had entrée to every president beginning in 1960 and many members of Congress, and affiliated with every major civil rights organization in the period. Following an earlier challenge to the WLBT-TV station, he and others acquired the business. Henry later chaired its board and earned considerable wealth from his partial ownership. He won a seat in the Mississippi legislature in 1979. Aging and ailing, he gave up the presidency of the NAACP in 1993 and lost his legislative post in 1995. He died in Clarksdale two years later.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Françoise Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (2012)
- Aaron Henry with Constance Curry, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning (2000)
- Minion K. C. Morrison, Aaron Henry of Mississippi: Inside Agitator (2015)