Job Corps Name Change

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 28, 2009

What’s in a name? At Job Corps, a lot

By John Howell Sr.

The name change coming October 16 for the Batesville Job Corps Center will weld together the names of two men from quite different backgrounds whose unlikely alliance brought the facility into being.

Charles C. “Cliff” Finch, Mississippi’s 56th governor, grew up on a hardscrabble farm in southeast Panola County during the Depression. Intelligent, hard-working, outgoing and ambitious, he put himself through college and law school on the GI bill after World War II and soon entered Panola politics in the racially-charged atmosphere of the 1950s.

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After sweeping wins in county and district races, first for state representative and then district attorney, he stepped onto the statewide stage in a darkhorse run for lieutenant governor in 1971 and lost. When the election cycle came around in 1975, Finch defied conventional political wisdom that would have had him make another run for the state’s second spot. Instead, he ran for governor and won.

To win against a field of seasoned candidates who had previously served in statewide office, Finch put together his “blackneck-redneck coalition” in a “workingman’s” campaign that capitalized on residual voter frustration with the entire political establishment that followed the long, exhausting Watergate affair that had culminated in 1974 with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

During the campaign, Finch approached Clarksdale pharmacist Aaron Henry, seeking his support and his influence among Mississippi newly-enfranchised black voters. It was a metamorphosis for Finch — from a hardline prosecutor pandering to white voters by seeking maximum-plus fines and punishments for civil rights workers charged with minor infractions during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to a pragmatist politician who recognized early the necessity of appealing to this large, new voting segment in Mississippi.

By the mid-1970s, Aaron Henry was one of Mississippi’s highest profile civil rights figures. He had entered the Army after high school and then earned a pharmacy degree at Xavier University in New Orleans.

His voting rights work in the state began in the early 1950s. During the 1960s he helped to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) which was  instrumental in sending those civil rights workers to Panola County during that summer of 1964.

Henry also helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which unseated the white-only regular Mississippi Democratic Party at the Presidential Convenion of 1964.

Henry’s reaction to Finch’s overtures for support during that 1975 campaign was a request, Minact, Inc. Chief Executive Officer B.T. Jones recalls. Henry wanted a Job Corps center in Mississippi for Mississippi kids.

“Cliff didn’t think he was going to win, so he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll agree to anything,’” Jones said recently, belting out a big laugh as he shared the memory during a meeting with Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey and several aldermen.

Once elected, Finch followed through with his promise, helping to secure a Job Corps Center at Crystal Springs “for all Mississippi kids,” Jones said.

When state officials realized it was possible for Mississippi to land another Job Corps Center, “Finch said, ‘If we’re going to have another Job Corps Center, we’re going to have it in Batesville,’” Jones said, recalling developments that led to the opening of the Batesville center in 1981.

The move to rename the Batesville Job Corps Center in memory of the two men was first proposed to then-Congressman Roger Wicker, Jones said. Wicker has been a strong supporter of the Job Corps program throughout his Washington career. He supported the name change but wanted  the effort to come from the community up, Jones said, starting with the Panola County supervisors and Batesville’s mayor and aldermen.

“Jerry (Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey) talked to Mr. Avant,” Jones said.

Soon proclamations were in hand from the city and county in support of changing the name of Batesville’s Job Corps Center.

Support for the change that originated in the community worked its way to Mississippi’s Congressional delegation, all of whom signed the letter in support of the change, Jones said, and all of whom have been invited – and many of whom are expected to attend – the October 16 ceremony.

From that day forward, it will be the Cliff Finch- Aaron Henry Job Corps Center in Batesville.

“I see it as a Batesville community event, not just a Batesville Job Corps Center event,” Jones said.