Socialists Still Remember T.R.M. Howard. Why Doesn’t Everybody?

At the World Socialist Web Site, Tom Eley unmasks Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and it’s just as you’ve always suspected: They’re stooges of the right. 

You may or may not find Eley’s case persuasive. (I think there are a few interesting points about corporate/community organizer dynamics.) But the most striking part is Eley’s explanation of how the Reverend Jackson got his start: 

Jackson’s most important political patron was not King, who according to aides viewed the younger man with suspicion, but the millionaire black entrepreneur, T.R.M. Howard. Howard, who occupied a right-wing position in the civil rights movement, hailed Booker T. Washington—the prominent 19th century black leader who called for political passivity in favor of individual self-improvement—as a “towering genius”. Howard hated socialism. At one point he said he wished that “one bomb could be fashioned that would blow every Communist in America right back to Russia where they belong.”

Howard’s resources and influence were critical in founding Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1971 as a vehicle for Jackson after he was suspended for “administrative improprieties” from Operation Breadbasket, which had been linked to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. PUSH specialized in applying pressure to corporations and businesses to place blacks in positions of power.

Note that even in trying to vilify Howard, the Socialist description concedes his non-trivial position within the civil rights movement. But Eley is wrong about one thing: Howard was by no means confined to any particular wing of the movement. 

Here’s a handy word cloud I came up with a few years ago to describe Howard: gun owner, political activist, civil rights legend, columnist, millionaire, host with the most, big game hunter, impresario, boycott leader, abortionist, serial philanderer, feminist, anti-Communist, affordable surgeon and Republican.

Damon Root described Howard’s activism in a review of David and Linda Beito’s groundbreaking Howard biography Black Maverick

In 1951, when Howard was already one of the wealthiest and most successful African Americans in Mississippi, he founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a pioneering civil rights outfit that, among other projects, organized economic boycotts (“Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom”) and hounded state and local officials to meet their legal obligations to fund black and white facilities equally. In 1954, when segregationists started pressuring banks and retailers to freeze civil rights activists’ credit, Howard convinced the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as various black churches and other affected groups, to deposit their money in the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis (where Howard was a board member), allowing African Americans to flex some of their growing economic muscle in the fight against Jim Crow.

In the aftermath of Till’s murder, Howard put his considerable talents and resources to work. Recognizing that local officials had little incentive to identify or punish every member of the conspiracy that took Till’s life, he spearheaded a private investigation, personally helping to locate, interview, and protect several important witnesses. He also made his large, lavishly provisioned home available to the various out-of-state observers gathering in town for the trial, including Cloyte Murdock of Ebony magazine and Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.).

Foremost among his houseguests was Emmett Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Bradley, who had come down from Chicago at Howard’s expense, not only to observe the trial but to testify. Her testimony was important because it contradicted that of Tallahatchie County Sheriff Henry Clarence Strider, a notorious racist who maintained that the corpse taken from the river was that of a man “as white as I am,” an ugly attempt to bolster the defense’s theory that Till was still alive and that the NAACP had planted the body in order to upset the otherwise peaceful racial order. (One conspiracy theory claimed that Howard personally snatched the “white” cadaver from the morgue and handed it over to the NAACP.)

Yet Howard’s remarkable story is barely known. He was neither a liberal crusader nor (despite a sterling upbringing in the Adventist Church) affiliated with any particular religious strain of civil rights activism. 

His story is also full of intrigue. The eventual cooling of Howard’s relations with Jackson seems to have stemmed from Jackson’s late-1970s instantiation as an anti-abortion firebrand (an episode now elided from most biographies). This put him at odds with Howard, a substantial portion of whose fortune may have come from the discreet medical services he provided to the cream of both black and white society. 

But I think Howard’s low profile is also a function of our thin appreciation of our own history. In the mainstream civil rights narrative, African Americans lay in passive bondage until an activist federal government led them out of Egypt. This history has no place for a guy who, through both excellent luck and a level of ambition that should shame the rest of us, made himself a success by every standard that mattered in America. 

In fact, forget Howard: The Black History syllabus never seems to find room for even completely uncontroversial stories of capitalist success. Why aren’t schoolkids tormented with assignments covering National Benefit Life Insurance Company founder Samuel W. Rutherford, or Madam C. J. Walker, who was not only the richest black American of her day but possibly the first American woman of any ethnicity to become a self-made millionaire? Something's weird about a country where only socialists acknowledge the market's power to create winners even in the face of awesome political obstruction. 

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  • CockGobbla||

    I mentored at an inner city elementary school in my college days.

    During Black History Month, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the highest an African American could aspire to was President of the United States, or secondarily, the NFL.

    What was interesting was that the students didn't buy the bullshit; however, it did add to the soul-crushing plight of their public education.

  • CockGobbla||

    At least they didn't buy the NFL part...Most thought they were going to be in the NBA.

  • Paul.||

    , or secondarily, the NFL

    What's scary is almost no one in this country can aspire to the NFL.

    One can understand why you'd be depressed if you believed that.

  • wareagle||

    of course, his story is not told. It defies the narrative. Can't go around heralding a black man who made a success of himself and in Mississippi no less. What kind of victim is that?

  • Paul.||

    "The Daley machine" = Tammany Hall.

  • Hyperion||

    feminist, anti-Communist

    Errr, I am skeptical, not buying it...

    Since 2 of the things I love to hate most are feminazis and commies, I can't really come to grips with the reality of such a seeming oxymoron of terms.

  • Paul.||

    Like liberal/conservative, the word feminist can have different connotations.

    There are true equality/sexual liberation feminists who often stand in stark contrast to anti-pornography/male gaze feminists.

  • Hyperion||

    true equality/sexual liberation feminists

    I think those died out from natural selection after, well you know, women achieved all of the same rights as men.

    The feminists of today are for the most part pug ugly, mad at the world, miserable, dykish progressives and their minions of mangina idiots.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    By the way the "Dr." isn't just title inflation. Howard was an M.D.

    And when they call me "The Colonel" that isn't title inflation, either. I've been bleaching my Van Dyke for years.

    I suppose I'm going to have to read Eley's take on Jackson and Sharpton. If the thrust of the argument was that they're unwitting stooges of racists, I'd believe it.

  • ||

    "We always have our memories. The Colonel is dead, here we are still enjoying his chicken."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Well, let me just quote the late, great Colonel Sanders, who said, "I'm too drunk to taste this chicken."

  • ||

    What's the matter, Colonel Sandurz? CHICKEN?!?

  • ||

    Oh well, the left just rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston about twenty years ago but to incorporate her into their narrative of victimization they had to rewrite or ignore about half her history.

  • Paul.||

    Serious question: what part of her history did they ignore?

  • Paul.||

    John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative"[31][32] while David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito have argued that she can better be characterized as a "libertarian."

    Never mind, I just figured it out.

  • ||

    See also http://www.lewrockwell.com/epstein/epstein15.html

    Also, after she was rediscovered the narrative became all about how she died in poverty working as a maid. Problem was that Zora had no problem working for a living no matter how menial the job. It was the left that expelled her from the fashionable literary salons because she would not tow the leftist, especially the Soviet Union's, lion.

  • John||

    Great writer. They were reading Their Eyes are Watching God in at least some college English courses at the turn of this century.

    That is what pisses me off about liberal PC. It is not that they want to celebrate black female authors. They should. There are some great ones like Hurston. It is that the authors they want to celebrate nearly always suck.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    I came up with a few years ago to describe Howard: gun owner, political activist, civil rights legend, columnist, millionaire, host with the most, big game hunter, impresario, boycott leader, abortionist, serial philanderer, feminist, anti-Communist, affordable surgeon and Republican.

    Interesting how he didn't edit the Harvard Law Review, eh musTARD?

  • TheZeitgeist||

    He couldn't get into Harvard, you need to be ~1/32nd Cherokee to get in the door there I hear...unless your Daddy went first.

  • Sevo||

    And there's little doubt that Condi Rice is neither a *real* woman, nor *really* black, since she doesn't support the Dems.

  • Old Mexican||

    At the World Socialist Web Site, Tom Eley unmasks Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and it's just as you've always suspected: They're stooges of the right.


    I knew it!!!

  • Old Mexican||

    Something's weird about a country where only socialists acknowledge the market's power to create winners even in the face of awesome political obstruction.


    That's because the other success stories don't want more success stories to appear and muddle the waters for their continuous success story.

    It's called Protectionism for a good reason, gang.

  • ||

    Jesus. If you are tied up with someone like in the picture and they have a leg up, you grab it and reap the other one out. Don't just stand there.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    I would have liked to meet the man. Sounds like he was an infinitely better human being than Sharpton or Jackson.

    Plus, he hated communists, which bolsters my last point above even more.

  • BOBSAYSO||

    I had once read a story that said Jesse Jackson sold-out MLK on the evening of his assassination accusing Jackson as being the one who got MLK on to the balcony. Not saying that's true. Just saying I read that some years ago.

  • Longtime Lurker||

    Somewhat related: I had to read "Dancing in the Streets: Motown and the Cutural Politics of Detroit" for a history course. I anticipated that it would be horrible, but it turned out to be somewhat engaging. One of the angles was that the civil rights struggle was helped via the support of Booker T. Washington-style "Black capitalism". (I don't think TRM Howard was mentioned.) In this case, the focus was on how Berry Gordy and Motown Records helped mainstream black culture so that it was less scary to whites.

    In my view, the book goes off the rails in the final chapter where we find out that everything went wrong when the now rich Gordy moved Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles and embraced "hyper capitalism", which means they "went corporate" (you know, like Jonas in Twister). Since the chapter basically had nothing to do with the rest of the book, I figured this was just the required bit where the author had to signal to her dissertation commitee that, yes, capitalism is bad (unless it is small and local). The book came out a year or so after the Seattle WTO protests, so maybe the publisher thought they needed something that tapped into the zeitgeist to help goose sales.

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