In 1934, at the age of 18, Graham joined the National Guard and served in the United States Army in Europe during World War II. In 1945, he attained the rank of Lt. Colonel and served in the Korean War in 1952. For his military services he received Bronze Star Medals and a Legion of Merit. He also served as Adjutant General for the State of Alabama from 1959 to 1961. In 1961, Graham was awarded the title of Brigadier General.
General Graham had several prominent roles in the American civil rights movement. In 1961, General Graham led the Alabama National Guard to protect the Freedom Riders from mob violence. On the evening of May 21, 1961, Freedom Riders and their supporters met at Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama to honor their struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr also flew in to offer support. As white mobs gathered outside the church and became increasingly agitated, the Kennedy Administration and Alabama Governor John Malcolm Patterson agreed to employ Alabama National Guard troops to surround the church for safety. At the request of King, General Graham entered the church to inform the crowd that they would have to wait until the next morning to leave the church. At dawn, Graham arranged for the members of the crowd to be escorted to their homes. Two days later, on May 24, Graham was responsible for escorting the Freedom Riders from the Montgomery bus terminal to the Alabama-Mississippi border using a convoy of three planes, two helicopters, and seventeen highway patrol cars.
In his most prominent role, on June 11, 1963, General Graham confronted Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama for refusing to allow two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, to register for classes. Among a crowd of media, Governor Wallace obstructed the doorway of Foster Auditorium in an attempt to disregard federal law requiring the University to integrate. United States Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach had approached Wallace earlier in the day and requested his cooperation in standing aside. When Wallace refused, President Kennedy mobilized the Alabama National Guard and General Graham was called to the University. Graham approached Wallace with four sergeants, saluted Wallace and said "It is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States." The episode is known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door."
From March 21 to 24, 1965, General Graham was responsible for escorting voting-rights marchers in their third attempt to walk during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. This occurred two weeks after marchers had been beaten and tear-gassed in front of news media for an earlier attempt to march in what became known as Bloody Sunday.
The episode is re-enacted in the 1994 film Forrest Gump which includes original footage of General Graham and Governor Wallace outside Foster Auditorium. In the 1997 TV movie George Wallace, Graham was portrayed by Jan Johannes.
General Graham died March 21, 1999. He and his wife, Jane, had four children. The commercial real estate firm he founded, Graham & Company, is managed by his two surviving sons.
Graham served in the National Guard from 1934 until his retirement in 1976 with the rank of Major General. He was called to active duty for federal service during World War II and the Korean War, with the following dates of rank.Enlisted service: 27 March 1934 - 14 September 1940
Private: 25 March 1934
Corporal: 24 March 1937
Sergeant: 23 April 1937
First Sergeant: 27 May 1940
Second Lieutenant: 15 September 1940 (National Guard) / 25 November 1940 (Army of the United States)
First Lieutenant (Army of the United States): 28 January 1942
Captain (Army of the United States): 17 September 1942
Major (Army of the United States): 24 March 1943
Lieutenant Colonel: 16 September 1945 (Army of the United States) / 28 October 1945 (Officer Reserve Corps) / 17 December 1946 (National Guard)
Colonel (National Guard): 1 April 1953
Major General (National Guard): 21 April 1959 [Promotion to Brigadier General retroactively applied 15 September 1961]
Due to the service component intricacies of the National Guard versus federalized status, while a Major General in the National Guard, Graham was twice appointed as Brigadier General in the Army of the United States in order to perform federalized duties under the authority of the President of the United States. The first occurrence was on June 11, 1963, and again on September 13, 1963; both events were in connection with federalization due to civil rights tensions in Alabama.
On March 13, 1970, while still serving as a Major General and National Guard Adjutant General, Henry Graham accepted a "dual commission" as a Chief Warrant Officer in the National Guard, solely for the purposes of performing flight operations as pilot of a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. This unusual administrative move was to enable General Graham, who did not hold the proper military occupational specialty to serve as a pilot, and to perform flight training and duties as a Warrant Officer. In theory, General Graham was technically resigned from his general officer's commission each time he flew, was a Warrant Officer in the air, and then reinstated as a Major General when the flight mission concluded. In practice, however, General Graham maintained his rank and insignia at all times.Legion of Merit
Bronze Star Medal (w/1 bronze oak leaf cluster)
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (w/4 bronze service stars & arrowhead device)
Army of Occupation Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Korean Service Medal
National Defense Service Medal
United Nations Service Medal
Korean War Service Medal (retroactive)
Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive)
Army Aviator Badge
Expert Badge (with Pistol Bar)