Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
They swarmed to Aaron E. Henry as if he were a rock idol instead of a Mississippi druggist who neglected his soda fountain to risk his life so people could do the simple things, like vote.
Myrlie Evers, whose husband, Medgar Evers, was killed after taking Henry to the airport, smothered him with kisses. "Certainly Aaron Henry has put forth as much as anyone, even those who have given their lives," said Mrs. Evers, as she recalled the violent mid-years of the civil rights struggle at a testimonial Wednesday night for Henry at the Shoreham Americana.
Hodding Carter III, now an assistant Secretary of State but an early figure in the move to unseat the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party, said very slowly, "From the first time I started thinking of social change he's been the inspiration."
The object of their admiration and gratitude, a slightly-stocky 54-year-old man in a navy leisure suit with a thin bow tie, was grabbing the shoulder of Rep. David Bowen (D-Miss.), who was saying, "He's 10 miles outside my district, darn."
With the death earlier this year of Fannie Lou Hamer, who symbolized for many the stoicism of the daughters of southern blacks, Henry remains almost alone as a testimony to those times. He keeps the hole in the roof of his drug store in Clarksdale, Miss., unrepaired to remind him of the costliness of those days and, in a way, of their unfinished agenda.
Like Fannie Lou Hamer, many said Wednesday night, Henry accomplishments aren't locked in a time capsule of the '60s. Since initiating the fight of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that eventually led to major reforms within the national party, they remarked, Henry has continued to push for health care reforms, human rights and the eradication of racism.
Wednesday's gala, sponsored by the National Black Veterans Organization of which Henry is chairman of the board, was held to raise money for a health center in Clarksdale. Participating in the entertainment portion of the program were comedian Dick Gregory, Tony award-winning actress Virginia Capers, actor and singer John Schuck and Roscoe Lee Browne, who was the emcee. President Carter sent a telegram, as did Sen. Robert Dole, the Kansas Republican.
In the audience of 400 people were representatives from Sen. James Eastland's office, Kenneth Curtis, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, W. Montague Cobb, the president of the NAACP, C. Delores Tucker, the secretary of the state of Pennsylvania, Max Cleland, the head of the Veterans Administration, and Joseph Rauh, the attorney who has been a close associate of Henry's since Henry ran for governor of Mississippi on a mock ballot in 1963.
"The perils of the past are hopefully echos of the past," said Henry. "Ever since Medgar died, I have been making sure he didn't die in vain and when the day comes when you never have to hear my mouth again I hope I'm some measure of that man."