HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) — Clarence Henderson was hailed as a hero nearly 60 years ago when as a young black man he participated in a sit-in at a segregated North Carolina lunch counter.
In 2016, he is again taking a risky stand; he is supporting Donald Trump.
And he isn’t shy about it. Last month he gave the invocation at a Trump rally here, smiling as he shook the Republican candidate’s hand.
“Donald Trump is certainly not a politician, and politicians are a dime a dozen, but leaders are priceless,” Henderson said in an interview.
Trump is deeply unpopular in the black community. He has called on black voters to vote for him because “what the hell do you have to lose?” His support among blacks is less than the margin of error in some polls.
Henderson, 74, has been criticized for his stance, with many taking to Twitter to accuse him of abandoning the principles he fought so hard for more than half a century ago.
Henderson shrugged off the criticism, saying he isn’t paying any attention to it.
And he has gotten some support from one of his fellow activists. Jabreel Khazan was one of the first four protesters to sit down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. And though he supports Hillary Clinton, he said he had no problem with Henderson’s choice.
“God bless him and all of those who have a second opinion,” said Khazan, whose name was Ezell Blair at the time of the protest. “We should not be a one-minded people.”
Henderson attended North Carolina A&T State University, when, as an 18-year-old, he joined the original four lunch counter protesters on the second day of their protest. He could no longer live under the official segregation known as Jim Crow, he said.
“I did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Angry whites jeered at them, and he wondered if he and his fellow protesters would be brought out in handcuffs or on stretchers.
They were arrested, but their actions inspired similar protests throughout the south that led to the desegregation of lunch counters and other nonviolent protests against racist policies.
For a civil rights hero, he later ended up on a more unconventional political path that he credits to his father, a lifelong Republican.
“My dad, with a third-grade education, said to me, ‘Well, son, you don’t know what the Democratic party has done as far as blacks are concerned,'” Henderson said.
He discovered the Democrats had created and enforced Jim Crow and the Republican Party was behind the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, granted equal protection to freed slaves and gave blacks the right to vote.
He cast his first vote for a Republican presidential candidate for George W. Bush. Henderson, who ran a financial services business for more than 25 years before retiring a decade ago, said he respected Bush’s business background.
He continued voting for Republicans, even when Barack Obama stood poised to become the first black president.
“I never thought I would see a black person become the president of the United States,” Henderson said. “His ideologies were different from mine. After looking at his past history, I didn’t see him as a viable candidate.”
This year, Trump was not Henderson’s first choice for the GOP nomination. He supported Sen. Ted Cruz. But now that Trump has the nomination, Henderson said he respects his business experience, even as he acknowledges the candidate’s off-the-cuff speaking style can be a problem.
“He has proved to be a leader in the business field. Has he done everything right? No, certainly not. But I think that he has more at stake than Hillary does,” he said.
In his invocation at the Trump rally last month, Henderson nodded to his past.
“I stand before you as one that knows what America’s all about – the good, the bad and the ugly. I would not live in any other country except America that put Jim Crow on trial and found him guilty of trying to separate the races. So I stand before you to say that we are unified,” he said.
Henderson said regardless of criticism, he will vote his conscience.
“I would rather be in the minority on the side of justice than in the majority on the side of injustice, because I have lived a life where I saw there was injustice,” he said.