Media Credit

People sit around table inside Dr. “Doc” Aaron Henry’s drugstore on 4th Street in Clarksdale. Noelle Henry, Aaron Henry’s wife, on the far right, 1964, Margaret J. Hazelton Freedom Summer collection, USM

A Story from Here

In 1946 shortly after his discharge from the army, Aaron “Doc” Henry became the first African American to vote in a Democratic primary in Coahoma County. He had grown up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just a few houses down from Highway 61, the major thoroughfare from Memphis to Vicksburg. After returning from Xavier University of New Orleans in 1950, Henry opened the Fourth Street Drug Store on the corner of Ashton and Fourth St. in Clarksdale. Henry would become state president of the NAACP and the president of COFO, but his deepest political roots grew in Clarksdale. He worked closely with SNCC, who affectionately called him “Doc.”

In some ways the story of Doc Henry and Clarksdale is a microcosm of the Movement. Driven by concerns of protection and legal assistance, local community members organized a NAACP branch in 1951, after the rapists of two Black women were acquitted. Doc Henry was elected president in 1954, and the chapter soon grew to become one of the largest and most active in the state. During one protest of the shooting of a young Black man with epilepsy, Henry argued so articulately that local officials decided he must be a communist. The F.B.I. was called in but decided Henry was not.

Clarksdale was a beacon for civil rights activism in the state. In 1961, the NAACP led a boycott of businesses downtown to support Black students that were being banned from performing in the city’s annual Christmas parade. It was the first of many across the state, successful in part because of the anonymity that it afforded participants. The responsibility was dispersed, and individuals and families were not directly putting themselves at risk. The boycott held strong. After more than a year, local whites began to employ terrorist tactics in their efforts to break the boycott, violence sanctioned by public officials and law enforcement. The window of Doc Henry’s pharmacy was broken in early March, and not long after, his home and pharmacy were bombed.

During the summer of 1963, the Movement in Clarksdale escalated. The community picketed City Hall, the public library, the circuit clerk’s office, and the Southern Bell telephone office. Arrested for their defiance of a court injunction that prohibited picketing, demonstrators committed themselves to the “Jail No Bail” policy, even though the conditions in jail were brutal. Prisoners withstood 103 degree heat, deprival of food, and taxing work. By mid-August, almost 100 people had been arrested. But the boycott continued, with organized trips to neighboring cities where residents could buy what they needed.

Local Landscape

Clarksdale, the seat of cotton-rich Coahoma County, was both a planter town and Black cultural center. The city’s population of 21,000 people was over 50% Black. Just across the Mississippi river, the King Biscuit hour broadcast from Helena. Meanwhile, Clarksdale pulsated with the blues, and Hwy 61 took many musicians north to Memphis. Many ex-sharecroppers lived in Clarksdale, bussing out to local farms each day to work. In the 1950s, farms began incorporate mechanized harvesting tactics, but only on a small scale. Without the infrastructure for industry, Clarksdale residents relied upon agriculture for employment. Doc Henry’s Fourth Street Drugstore and Haven United Methodist Church were important centers within the Black community and of movement activity. The Clarksdale Movement had the widespread cooperation of local people, largely due to the work of respected activists such as Aaron Henry.

References

Charles Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
Françoise N. Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta After World War II
Aaron Henry and Constance Curry, Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle