Long before becoming a minister, Milton Henry had experienced several political and ideological turns, none of them more eventful than the time he spent with Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). During their moments together it’s not easy to single out one place or time that was most rewarding in their encounters, but Henry’s trip with Malcolm to Egypt and welcoming him to Detroit on several occasions, particularly the last one on Feb. 14, 1965, were momentous.
While an obituary in the Detroit Free Press highlights some of his distinguished life and career, including his military service, his years as an attorney and then becoming a minister, it gives no mention of his political activism, his demand for civil and human rights.
To begin, Henry was born on Aug. 27, 1919, in Philadelphia, and during World War II he was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, sharing that unit with such notables as Dr. Roscoe Brown, Lee Archer, Percy Sutton and Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor. While stationed in Alabama, he experienced the same belligerent racism that incensed Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson when they were stationed in Alabama. And like them, Henry refused to buckle before the insults and consistently defied the Jim Crow laws.
On one occasion, after being told to use the back entrance to a bus, Henry punched the white bus driver. The only thing that probably saved him from being assaulted by a group of white southerners was a group of British cadets on the bus who shielded him from a severe beating, and possibly his death.
After military duty, Henry enrolled at Lincoln University, and when he wasn’t in the classroom he was part of demonstrators doing their best to discourage African-Americans not to join the segregated armed forces. Later, when a friend of his asked him to accompany him to an entrance exam to the Yale Law School, Henry went along and took the test, too. While his friend didn’t do so well, Henry took the exam and was offered a scholarship.
With a law degree and a wife, Marilyn, and their daughter, Henry moved to Pontiac, a city not too far from Detroit. In the early 1950s he sought and won an election as a city commissioner, but was less successful in his pursuit of justice in school desegregation cases. Jurist Elbert L. Hatchett, a resident of Pontiac, said that Henry was the first attorney he had ever seen who had the “perception,” and a command of language and courage to speak truth to power.
No matter where and to whom, Henry was not one to capitulate to heinous attacks or to tolerate abuses without striking back. That same moxie was on display later when he began defending his clients, and the keen analysis he expressed in the courtroom would also be evident as he began to become an activist in politics, education and the general quest for human rights.
Noted Detroit writer and historian, Paul Lee, recalled Henry’s early involvement in the creation of several political formations, including the National Grassroots Leadership Conference as well as playing a vital role in the founding of the Group on Advanced Leadership. But most formidable was his prowess in the courtroom, and he was soon widely retained to fight for his clients on several fronts of education, public affairs and certainly in the fight for political power.
Whenever Malcolm X came to Detroit to speak, Henry was often there armed with his tape recorder to ensure that Malcolm’s speeches would endure for years and continue to resonate for a new generation of militant activists. Henry and his company, the Afro-American Recording Company, were assiduously determined to document every speech Brother Malcolm made in Detroit, and in other nearby locations.
The apogee of his organizational acumen may have occurred when he was co-founder of the Republic of New Afrika, becoming the group’s vice president. He, along with brother Imari Obadele and other members, dedicated themselves to carving out a nation in the South comprised mainly of the five major states below the Mason-Dixon line. During this phase of his life, with a heavy identification with Afrocentric ideas and quests, he was known as Gaidi Obadele.
His legal expertise was often summoned, nowhere more urgently than for members of the RNA and other radical, outspoken freedom fighters such as Robert Williams. His courtroom style and demeanor was widely heralded, earning him the title of the “Black Defender.”
Henry was a trusted comrade and a loyal member of Malcolm’s organization, and this is one of the reasons he was selected to travel with him to Cairo for an international Summit Conference.
Many of his friends and associates were taken aback when Henry was no longer active in the RNA and enrolled at the Ashland Theological Seminary after experiencing an epiphany in Africa. Subsequently he found his own church and began preaching in Southfield, Mich.
Now his political perspective was merged with his new spiritual awakening, a baptism that didn’t necessarily mean he had turned in his separatism dream. It was merely a shifting of his outlook, and it would have dramatic consequences upon his death in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., on Sept. 9, 2006, at 87 with his widow destroying many of his valuable papers.