Civil Liberties

A Forgotten Civil Rights Hero

The unappreciated legacy of entrepreneur-activist T.R.M. Howard


Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power, by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 312 pages, $35

On August 31, 1955, the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was found in Mississippi's Tallahatchie River. Three days earlier, several men had abducted Till from his great-uncle's home to make him answer for the "crime" of whistling at a young white woman. He was tortured, shot in the head, tied with barbed wire to the fan wheel of a cotton gin, and dumped in the river.

It was a horrific crime, one that stood out even amid the state-sanctioned violence that had long characterized the Mississippi Delta. One of the earliest and loudest denunciations of Till's murder came from Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard of nearby Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Howard, a wealthy doctor, fraternal society leader, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist, declared upon Till's kidnapping that if "the slaughtering of Negroes is allowed to continue, Mississippi will have a civil war. Negroes are only going to take so much." After Till's body was discovered, Howard promised there would be "hell to pay in Mississippi." And he kept his word.

Howard "consistently pushed an agenda of self-help, black business, and political equality whenever opportunities arose," write David T. Beito, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, and his wife Linda Royster Beito, a professor of social sciences at Stillman College, in their captivating and vividly detailed new biography, Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Born in 1908 in the small tobacco town of Murray, Kentucky, T.R.M. Howard came to the Mississippi Delta in 1941 to serve as chief surgeon of the Taborian Hospital, an institution catering to poor and middle-class blacks. It was run by the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a 50,000-member African-American fraternal society dedicated to "Christianity, education, morality and temperance and the art of governing, self reliance, and true manhood and womanhood."

In addition to his duties at the hospital, Howard operated a thriving private practice, where his specialties soon included the discreet provision of illegal abortions (for both black and white patients), a practice he justified as a matter of both individual rights and family planning. (He also favored legalizing prostitution, arguing that man's sinful nature made it impossible to suppress the sex trade.) He pursued numerous profit-making ventures as well, including Mississippi's most prosperous black-owned farm, a small zoo, and the state's first Olympic-sized swimming pool for blacks.

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.

Unlike other prominent civil rights leaders, though, Howard had little patience for the utopian schemes of the far left, declaring at one point that he wished "one bomb could be fashioned that would blow every Communist in America right back to Russia where they belong." In a similar vein, he maintained, "There is not a thing wrong with Mississippi today that real Jeffersonian democracy and the religion of Jesus Christ cannot solve."

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 Clotye 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.)

In addition to bankrolling and assisting the investigation, Howard served as a sort of chief of security, escorting Bradley, Diggs, and other witnesses and supporters to and from court each day in a heavily armed caravan. In fact, the Beitos write, security at Howard's residence "was so impregnable that journalists and politicians from a later era might have used the word 'compound' rather than 'home' to describe it." To put it another way, guns were stashed everywhere, including a Thompson submachine gun at the foot of Howard's bed and a pistol at his waist. Howard understood all too well the deep ties between white supremacy and gun control. The first gun control laws in American history arrived during Reconstruction, when the former Confederate states attempted to deny emancipated blacks the right to acquire property, make contracts, vote, freely assemble, and keep and bear arms.

Not that these and other efforts mattered to the all-white jury in the Till case, which took just 68 minutes to acquit the two men charged with his murder. (Both had admitted to kidnapping Till, though others were almost certainly involved.) As the Beitos argue, there was ultimately very little that Howard or his allies could have done: "Quite simply, [the jury] regarded killing a black male for insulting a white woman as not serious enough to merit the prescribed punishment." But the Till case is now widely credited with kick-starting the modern civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, for instance, heard Howard speak about Till's murder just four days before her famous act of civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and later said Till was foremost in her mind at that time.

Not surprisingly, Howard's prominent role in the case earned him enemies. The Jackson Daily News denounced him as "an enemy of both races." But his most notable foe was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who didn't appreciate Howard's repeated attacks on the FBI for its failure to protect the lives of Southern blacks. In response, Hoover released an open letter denouncing Howard for his "intemperate and baseless charges" and for his "disservice to common decency." Howard responded in kind. Several years later, when Hoover denounced Martin Luther King as a "notorious liar," Jet magazine reminded readers that the FBI director's tactics were a "shrill echo" of his earlier attack on Howard.

Hoover's critique was shared by at least one black leader: NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In a private letter to the FBI director, Marshall attacked Howard as a "rugged individualist" who did not speak for the NAACP. "Marshall's disdain for Howard was almost visceral," the Beitos observe. He "disliked Howard's militant tone and maverick stance" and "was well aware that Hoover's attack served to take the heat off the NAACP and provided opportunities for closer collaboration [between the NAACP and the FBI] in civil rights."

No single individual brought down the South's Jim Crow regime, but there were a few dozen who played essential parts. Black Maverick convincingly elevates Howard to that rank. It also provocatively links Howard's success to the controversial ideas of the 19th-century African-American leader Booker T. Washington, who had famously prioritized black economic independence over political liberty. In his celebrated "Atlanta Compromise" speech of 1895, Washington declared, "No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house." Howard's life at least partially vindicates Washington's much-criticized approach, showing, as the authors write, "that the growth of voluntary associations, self-help, business investment, and property ownership was the best precondition for civil rights."

Indeed, one of the book's most significant achievements is to highlight the indispensable role that black entrepreneurs and professionals played in the crucial early phase of the modern civil rights struggle. Several years before the appearance of Martin Luther King's clergy dominated Montgomery Improvement Association, Howard's RCNL relied primarily on the support of "undertakers, entrepreneurs, professionals, doctors, druggists, and owners of small farms." These men used both their financial resources and their professional networks to support some of the earliest economic and legal challenges to Jim Crow. For Howard, this focus on economic independence remained constant throughout his career. As the authors note, "although Howard's speeches resembled those of a Baptist preacher both in style and content, he had always emphasized business and the professions, not the church, as the vanguards of future success."

By his death in 1976, Howard had resettled in Chicago and emerged as a quiet financial backer of black causes. He was instrumental in the formation of the independent Chicago League of Negro Voters and provided crucial funding for the Afro-American Patrolmen's League, which publicized allegations of police misconduct and racism.

Today, given the overwhelming attention that most historians have paid to King's dazzling legacy, it's easy to forget that fraternal societies and profit-minded entrepreneurs also led the fight for equal rights. With Black Maverick, T.R.M. Howard's achievements have finally received the attention they deserve.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at reason.