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.