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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Aaron Henry, April 2, 1974. Interview A-0107. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decline in fear of racial violence, though fear persists

Henry reflects on racism in Mississippi and shares some of his experiences with segregation. He weaves local lawman Charlie Sullivan into his story, recalling that Sullivan jailed him for advocating a boycott and sharing his belief that Sullivan and other whites were becoming less racist. This decline in racial hostility in Mississippi has made Henry feel less fearful of violence, although he still will not drive anywhere alone.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Aaron Henry, April 2, 1974. Interview A-0107. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
What is it like in Mississippi now politically compared to what it was like when you got started? Twenty years ago, right?
AARON HENRY:
Well, when you say you got started. . . . I really became a member of NAACP as a senior in high school back in '41. Graduated in June of '42.
JACK BASS:
You a native of Clarksdale?
AARON HENRY:
I was born in this county. I was born on Flowers brothers plantation. My parents moved into the town of Clarksdale for better educational opportunities for me and my sister. unknown from the genesis of time that you remember Mississippi has grown from an era where whites were automatically superior to an era where superiority is not necessarily reflected in whiteness. Of course being white does give one a head start. But there are several blacks who outrank whites in various areas of relationship. And I think in terms of change from then to now, I think the biggest change is in attitudinal relations. You were over at Charlie Sullivan's before you came here. Charlie picked up the phone and said "Aaron, this is Charlie. Tell a friend of our how to get to your house." Well now Charlie Sullivan is a former lieutenant governor of this state, former district attorney from this area. There was a time, say ten years ago or more, when he would say "Aaron, this is Mr Charlie." But it's. . . no. . . as I say, the way one responds to the other today as compared to then is grossly different.
JACK BASS:
And you told me earlier that there was a time when he prosecuted you—
AARON HENRY:
Oh sure, Charlie put me in jail. Like everybody else. He was district attorney. That was his job. I was unknown violating laws that I didn't feel were just laws. And in that context, the discipline of the movement demands that you be willing to pay the cost for violating laws, you know, that you don't feel are just. So I don't believe one without penalty can afford to obey only those laws that he believes in. But if he's willing to pay the penalty for the laws he violates, you know, I think that that compensates for a conscious difference between the two.
JACK BASS:
What were the type of laws involved in those cases?
AARON HENRY:
Well, I was unknown advocating to people, particularly black people, not to patronize certain stores in the community because they didn't hire blacks. You were guilty of parading without a permit as they called it at that time. Which meant that you had invoked what is a traditional first amendment right of carrying a pickett sign in front of a business and in front of an individual. Frankly, we picketted Charlie Sullivan himself, as district attorney for this county. Because of the fact that he was instrumental in getting affidavits against us who were involved in the picketing. This was the kind of stuff, largely, that I was involved on the opposite side from Charlie.
JACK BASS:
How did you feel toward him then?
AARON HENRY:
Oh, well, I just said Charlie was a law man, you know. That the fracas between blacks and whites at that time was underscored that whites are in the master role, blacks are in the servant role. And consequently the master-servant role prevailed. You know, I've had to deal with Charlie on the question of involvement in the Democratic party and trying to be sure that rules and regulations that were set up by unknown in the Democratic party then would no longer be in vogue. We had a series of deposition sessions where our lawyers were present and his lawyer and him were present and consequently there was this kind of unknown . Really, my attitude about Charlie and many other whites who I feel have turned a corner. . . . I don't think that I've changed. I think that they've changed their way of action that accommodates my position. Regardless of how bad they've been, when they convince me or some of the others of us, that they are no longer a part of what they used to be, then I'm for forgiving what their past has been. Because you see if blacks continue to hold against whites all of the charges that they are guilty of in terms of their negation of the black community. . . . If we continue to hold that as an issue of hatred, an issue of confrontation, then we're never going to get over this situation of racial injustice and racial bigomy. So if ten years ago you had come here you would have found a couple people outside with shotguns and maybe one man inside. You know, the house had been bombed and all. Knocked the store down a couple time. And of course we responded to the cruels in these areas. But I would say within the last four or five years there has been, in my mind, no real concern about being dealt with physically in a way that would deprive me of life or limb.
JACK BASS:
How much fear did you feel, say ten years ago?
AARON HENRY:
Well, you know, I don't really know. I just know this, that it's not whether or not you're afraid but it's what do you do when you are afraid. Now my activity ten years ago is the same as it is now. Continuing to try to convince as many members of the total community as I could that there was a situation of a one way structure where all men were men, where nobody was inferior to another. This is pretty much the line that I learned from the NAACP when I first became involved in it, which was further structured by my years of identity, close association with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, those kind of activity. I've Never known a time when I didn't feel as I do now. That in the question of violence I was certainly much more concerned about if it effected my family, my children, my wife, myself. Then the guards that we had. As soon as my wife got to the point where she felt comfortable with them not being here, then I was very happy to say "We don't need you anymore." Because I would just like to not have to have somebody with me everywhere I go. Now I still maintain one bit of caution. I guess you would call it domestic caution. Because my wife insists that I don't travel by myself, you know, around in the car. She'd rather have somebody there tell a story unknown . So just to be sure her mental attitude is not all stirred up about me driving by myself, I capitulated to that. I don't drive alone. But other than that I don't have any. . . .