RALEIGH — Clarence Henderson knows what it’s like to hold his ground despite strong opposition from the majority. That was true in 1960 when he participated in the historic sit-in at a Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter, and it was true in years since as he’s walked the often-lonely path of being a black Republican.
But in 2020, Henderson is no longer alone. New energy is being injected into black conservatism by a generation of emerging leaders and organizations, many of them from his home state of North Carolina. Much of the groundwork for the rise of this new black conservative movement was laid by trailblazers like Henderson.
While being more-recently known as a celebrated speaker at President Donald Trump’s 2020 Republican National Convention, Henderson’s public activism began in a much different time and place — in 1960 at the Greensboro Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter.
Henderson told NSJ in a Sept. 22 interview that he was recruited by one of the protest leaders, a friend since the first grade, to sit at the counter on the second day of the sit-in, Feb. 2, 1960. It was on this day that the iconic photograph of four black men, one being Henderson, sitting at the counter was taken. He says this photo “went around the world” and inspired sit-ins at lunch counters across the country, even places that were already integrated.
His motivation for joining the protest was simply to be treated as a human being “and not anything less than.” He recounts being treated poorly in many areas of public life at that time, including being forced to stand on a long bus trip to New Jersey.
“I left from Greensboro and had to stand up, not because there were no seats on the bus, but because there were no seats at the back of the bus. There were seats in the front of the bus, but I couldn’t sit down there,” Henderson remembered. “Constantly, you would be walking down the street and get called the N-word just to get called the N-word.”
Because of this frequent degrading treatment, he said he was unsure what would happen when he joined the protest, but it was something he knew he had to do and that it would be a defining moment of his life.
“Walking into Woolworth’s that day was a different kind of experience for me, not knowing if I was going to come out in a vertical position in handcuffs going to jail, or in a horizontal position going to a hospital or the morgue,” Henderson said.
He avoided serious consequences, but many others in the resulting nationwide sit-ins did not. Henderson said his movement was about peaceful protests targeted towards those directly oppressing them. Asked if he believes Black Lives Matter is a continuation of this work, he said he doesn’t, because demonstrations are often violent and harm uninvolved people who are “just trying to make a living.”
“This is the difference between a non-violent protest and a violent protest — one tears down and one builds up.”
At that point in his life, Henderson was not a Republican; that shift happened later. “When I started voting, I voted Democrat because that’s what I was told to do.”
He remembers once lecturing his father with political views learned in college at N.C. A&T and being surprised to hear the usually quiet man with a 3rd-grade education tell him that he “didn’t know his history” or what the Republicans had done for black Americans. This comment from a man born in 1908 stuck with him, but did not change him into a Republican overnight.
Twenty years later though, Henderson said he began to delve deeper into why he identified with the party that he did.
“When I started to research, I found that the Republican Party was who was most representative of my values,” Henderson said. “I’m pro-life; I believe in traditional marriage; I believe in small government; and I believe that the government should stay out of the private sector as much as possible.”
One issue Henderson believes is particularly important to the black community is school choice.
“Our kids are being held hostage to a system that has failed them,” he said of public schools. “We have a number of generations that have been indoctrinated, not educated.”
Henderson said Democrats have made promises to the black community, but have not followed through. “The Democrat Party has been good at coming and promising things, but when you look at it, what have they done?”
He believes Republican President Donald Trump is pursuing policies that would improve life for black Americans. He listed support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), economic opportunity zones, school choice and criminal justice reform as areas Trump has worked to improve conditions for his community.
“I am not anybody’s victim,” Henderson said. “I was in business for myself for almost 30 years in one of the most challenging professions, the financial services industry, and was able to compete in the industry. That shows that all the black community needs is the opportunity.”
He said things have changed so much from slavery to Jim Crow to modern American society that this opportunity does exist now for black Americans to succeed. There is still racism, Henderson said, “because you cannot legislate the human heart,” but there are no longer any laws on the books intended to hold them back.
“Where else, except for America, can a kid born on a farm, born on the wrong side of the tracks, except there were no tracks, no birth certificate, parents only have a third-grade education, be invited to first of all to the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion, and then to the White House.”
But being an outspoken Republican as a civil rights icon made him at best an “oddity” and to many others, an enemy.
“A lot of people call me names that you wouldn’t believe to my face. But they don’t understand that I’m fighting for their freedom,” Henderson said. “One reporter said that when blacks spoke at the RNC, we were like a minstrel show. And a black lady who was a guest on CNN said the same thing. But my questions to them is: How do you think you got to be where you are right now? It was people like me who were able to put you in the position where you have the opportunity you do now. So how dare you call me some kind of minstrel?”
He said the reason so many in the black community react so strongly to black Republicans is misinformation about what each party stands for.
“People don’t trust that which they don’t know,” Henderson said on the black community’s distrust of Republicans. “The Republican Party has been out-strategized, that’s the reason that I got involved, because they were always on defense, allowing the other party to frame the conversation.”
He said many people are open to talking about issues and accepting of different positions on them, but once the R-word is said, they shut down, not believing Republicans can be authentically black. A recent comment by Joe Biden saying, “You ain’t black” if you vote for Trump especially stung, but Henderson said is not swayed by this opposition.
“I would rather be right in the minority than wrong in the majority.”
Next week we’ll look at some of N.C.’s rising generation of black conservative leaders.