Archibald Murphey Aiken was born on February 28, 1888, in Danville, the only child of Judge Archibald Murphey Aiken and Mary Ella Yates Aiken. He attended Danville Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute before matriculating in the 1905–1906 academic year at the University of Virginia, where he earned B.A. and LL.B. degrees in 1910 and 1913 respectively. In 1922 Aiken married Corinne Conway, of Danville, and they had one son. They were divorced in 1942, and Aiken later married Mary Mickley.
Aiken served in France as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I (1914–1918). He subsequently returned to Danville, where he was city attorney from 1919 to 1939, interrupted by interim service in 1921 and 1922 as circuit court judge, the office his father had once held. Aiken practiced law from 1939 to 1950. From the latter year until his death he was judge of the Danville Corporation Court.
Aiken was an outspoken supporter of the state’s policy ofto court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. In 1963 he gained national notoriety for his handling of civil rights demonstrations in Danville, which were inspired by the protests then occurring in Birmingham, Alabama, under the leadership of local African American ministers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Beginning early in June, Danville ministers led daily marches protesting segregation in public facilities and racial discrimination in hiring practices. Judge Aiken personally confronted the demonstrators on June 5 with an order to disperse. When they refused, he ordered them arrested. The following day he issued a sweeping injunction banning most forms of public protest. Danville police used clubs and fire hoses to assault demonstrators who violated the injunction, resulting in forty-eight injuries and numerous arrests. Aiken convened a special grand jury and had the demonstrators’ leaders indicted under what was popularly and incorrectly referred to at the time as “John Brown’s Law,” a statute reenacted as recently as 1960 that had its origins during slavery and made it a felony to conspire or to incite “the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population.” On June 16, acting in concert with Aiken’s response to the protests, the city council adopted an ordinance essentially codifying the judge’s antidemonstration injunction.
Controversy followed Aiken into the later years of his life. In December 1966, as he continued to try the cases from the 1963 arrests and to hand down fairly harsh sentences, W. Leigh Taylor, an executive of a large textile manufacturer based in Danville, wrote a letter to Aiken criticizing his judgment. Aiken cited him for contempt and sentenced him to ten days in jail, with eight suspended. This action drew strong protest in Virginia, including a fruitless call for Aiken’s impeachment from James Jackson Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader. On July 30, 1969, Aiken gained more national attention when he sentenced twenty-year-old Frank Provost Lavarre to twenty-five years in prison (five years conditionally suspended) and a $500 fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Governorlater reduced the sentence.
Although events singled Aiken out for national attention, many political leaders of his generation in Virginia’s Southside shared his views on social change. Throughout the civil rights controversy and after his death, the all-white Danville Bar Association passed resolutions supporting Aiken and praising his integrity and devotion to duty. The Danville City Council named a bridge for him in 1970. Aiken died of a heart attack in Danville on November 27, 1971, and was buried in Green Hill Cemetery in that city.