Aaron Henry is one of the neglected figures of the human rights struggle, but one of the longest engaged and most effective soldiers in the fight. He was willing to spend his life hacking away until the barriers to a free Mississippi came tumbling down, and Mignon K.C. Morrison showed how he did it and how much it cost him. In Aaron Henry of Mississippi: Inside Agitator, Professor Morrison gives us all the details of the endless fights as the forces against him and the Mississippians writhed and struggled to counter his and his cohorts every move.
To quote John Dittmer, Morrison’s book represents a major contribution to the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement. Professor Morrison has brought Aaron Henry to the notice and understanding of a broader audience which has been in long need of a counter-narrative to the widespread notion that one person cannot make a difference. Dr. Morrison has shone the light of his intellect on this hero of the human rights struggle who brought about such a profound change.
In accepting a Lillian Smith Book Award, Professor Morrison observed as follows:
I wish to express my appreciation to the University of Georgia Libraries, the Southern Regional Council, Piedmont College, and the Georgia Center for the Book, who organized this event, and, to the judges who selected this work for recognition. I am particularly pleased to have Aaron Henry's life and work associated with the profound contribution of Lillian Smith, a woman who exhibited Henry's leadership and courage, in a time and place that was almost boundless in its denial of voice to African Americans and women. So I am happy to have an award that seems so appropriate in the way the lives of these two resonate. Thank you very much for the honor, which owes everything to Aaron Henry for providing a story worth the telling, and for composing a compelling life that offers continuing lessons for a path to fundamental social change.
For me as a political scientist, perhaps it was foolish to undertake this task that might have been best left to an historian. Yet it was Henry's engagement with politics and his vision for political change that seemed right. It fit with my scholarly work in comparative politics, mostly identified with the struggles by repressed ordinary citizens in Africa, Latin America and Asia to mobilize for political voice. But what I learned along the way in the 15-year life span of this project was that I had to employ a good deal of the craft of historians to pull this off. In the end, however, this project was an effort to center Henry's extraordinary contribution in the historiography of social change movements among African descendants in the Americas. Your recognition gives me some confidence that the effort has been worthwhile.
The story is there for your reading, so let me say just a word about the man and the actual work. Henry was that rare individual who successfully combined social movement commitments and formal political leadership. In the latter role he nevertheless maintained integrity to the dictates of challenge and struggle inherent in social movement activism. His success seemed inherent in his original and enduring vision and method. He never separated social movement requirements from political activism and, seeing no disjuncture between the two was able to carry them both along from the start. Even as his NAACP chapter in Clarksdale challenged segregated bus stations in the early 1960s, he simultaneously managed a campaign that challenged the lily white Mississippi congressional delegation. No candidate had run for such a seat since Reconstruction, when Blacks were stripped of the franchise. He never wavered in that combined method and vision in seeking citizenship regularity for African Americans.
This product is first and foremost a biographical treatment of a man whose contributions changed the trajectory of Mississippi, a state so long associated with the most abject efforts to deny the human and citizenship rights of African Americans. Aaron Henry, born in 1922 in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, set a vision as a social movement and political leader to alter that structure of exclusion and its accompanying disparities. Perhaps more than most others who set out to bring such change, his vantage point in the core "Black belt" gave him a better reading of the scope of the challenge. That clear-eyed view resulted from the residual of plantation enslavement reflected in the daily life of his sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta. As a precocious, sensitive boy he learned the lessons of racial caste and committed to changing them. After high school he did a tour of military service, which provided support for his later training as a pharmacist. With that training he launched a successful business and commenced the social change work that consumed him the rest of his life. This biography traces his mature life as an activist, becoming the first among equals in the ensemble that wrought the greatest change in the regularization of African Americans as citizens in Mississippi history. For all that Mississippi was, is, and will be, the changes he wrought offer a template well worth holding onto. His role in the national scene also gave him significant influence in the broader civil rights movement in the United States.
The final point I would make about his life and contribution is about its longevity and the broad achievement that made for. Now, in some ways his longevity may have been accidental. Many people like him were murdered, harassed and/or intimidated into silence. In his case, he escaped that fate to live a long life, notwithstanding monumental efforts to harass or kill him. It afforded him the opportunity to maintain the good fight until a natural death. No one with such a progressive social change project had his amount of time in place or endurance.
During this work my own personal story underwent the most profound changes imaginable. The life of my wife, Johnetta, ended just as a project, with which she also lived for 15 years, was about to appear. My daughter, Dr. Iyabo Morrison, who joins me here today, and I have picked up what is left following that monumental loss and move along. I do so, in addition, with the most remarkable family, classmates, friends and scholarly associates, several of whom are here today. It would take a long time to communicate the depth of support these and the classes of 1964 (Utica, MS), and 1968 (Tougaloo) provide me. I thank them as I thank you