Henry Shelton grew up in Central Falls and started his activist career as a Catholic priest. He felt warmth and achievement with worshipers at a couple of different parishes, most notably St. Michael’s Parish in South Providence, but he required greater freedom and mobility to tackle the larger issues that affected peoples’ lives. He soon realized he had a larger ministry: to embrace the poor and disinherited inhabitants of the state, regardless of religion or any other status. He left the priesthood.
Henry embarked on his new mission, forming larger groups to house his many smaller social ventures. He spearheaded the two most notable organizations that defined his activity: the Coalition for Consumer Justice (CCJ) and the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center where he served as director for over thirty years. From these perches he organized and participated in street level rallies to gain free bus rides for the elderly, to curb the rising cost of utilities, to address the problems of the handicapped, and to obtain free school breakfasts–among a sprawling list. His causes crept into every nook and cranny of Rhode Island society, wrapped around a single spool labeled social justice.
Of course, Henry was not alone doing this. A large part of his legacy is how many of today’s advocates in direct action and door-to-door community organizing started through his example. Indeed, at one point, the Coalition for Consumer Justice had a staff of 65 paid people encompassing canvassers, organizers and directors along with fifteen chapters working on local issues and joining together on issues of statewide importance. Henry often took his advocacy to the top. Many a governor, judge, CEO, senator, speaker, and mayor learned the hard way that Henry was not someone who would just go away. When confrontations occurred Henry usually prevailed.
Although he always seemed most comfortable directly empowering those people he sought to assist, Henry understood the role of politics and frequently led rallies at the State House where he could be seen buttonholing, hectoring, and pestering any legislators who might have a key vote on an important bill. Rather than angering lawmakers, his selfless demeanor and Spartan lifestyle won him their admiration and grudging respect. In 2011 the General Assembly recognized his dedication when it passed the Henry Shelton Act on his eighty-first birthday. This law requires utility companies to curtail strict shutoff policies and to establish an arrearage forgiveness program for eligible low-income households who have had their utilities shut-off for non-payment or who have been scheduled for shut-off.
In keeping with his earlier priestly vows, Henry seldom took credit for any of his accomplishments. He humbly preferred to shift such honors to his legion of followers and colleagues who seldom possessed a title or garnered recognition. On occasion he found a handful of wealthier and influential citizens who were imbued with his own beliefs and persuaded them to serve on one board of directors or another.
Henry lives with his wife Carol in Cranston. They have five children. A recent stroke has diminished his physical capacity, but nothing has, or will, diminish his legacy as Rhode Island’s foremost champion of the underdog./
Dr. D. Scott Molloy, Jr.