This is more than the story of a single man. The life of Theodore Roosevelt Mason (T. R. M.) Howard is also a testament to the largely unsung role of the black middle class during the twentieth century—business and professional people who started community self-help organizations, courageously fought compulsory segregation, pioneered the Civil Rights Movement, and helped fund its development.

Few individuals contributed more significantly to these achievements than T. R. M. Howard. He loomed large in such major black newspapers as the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Memphis World. Four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he founded a mass nonviolent movement in the Mississippi Delta. From 1952 to 1955, he organized annual civil-rights rallies that sometimes attracted crowds of ten thousand, led a successful statewide boycott, and publicly faced down a segregationist governor. He not only hired Medgar Evers for his first job out of college but was instrumental in introducing him to the Civil Rights Movement. So scathing was his criticism of the FBI’s failure to protect civil rights that J. Edgar Hoover took the rare step of denouncing Howard in an open letter. Howard threw himself into the search for evidence to help solve the murder of Emmett Till and gave over his home to serve as a refuge for reporters and witnesses during the trial.

These activities brought Howard national recognition and praise. Paul Robeson, the singer and actor, lauded him as “an energetic and resourceful leader,” and the California Eagle dubbed him the “most hated, and the best loved, man in Mississippi.” In 1956 the Chicago Defender gave Howard the top spot on its annual honor roll for “arousing the nation to the criminal conspiracy of white supremacists in the state of Mississippi.” Martin Luther King Jr. was not even on the list. Simeon Booker of Jet lionized Howard as an “outspoken, fearless, and cunning . . . sectional hero” who had become “part of the Delta’s folklore.”

Prominent black leaders recognized Howard as a peer and friend. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP thought so highly of his rhetorical skills that he underwrote a national speaking tour in the months after the Till murder. “People call Martin Luther King Jr. the Negro orator of the century,” Charles Evers writes. “T. R. M. Howard was as good, or better, and I heard them both in their prime.” Howard’s speeches also impressed Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. She stayed in Howard’s home during the trial of her son’s accused killers. “The man was dynamic,” she recalls. “I just thought he was the greatest in the world.” Similarly, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, saluted Howard’s fight against the “racialism and the tribalism of those who would strike down the Constitution.”

A wealthy entrepreneur, accomplished surgeon, and fraternal society leader, Howard had a zest for life. He stood out among blacks and whites in the Delta as he sped down the highway in his Cadillac, which was always the latest model. The center of attention in any social setting, Howard was tall, affable, immaculate, and stylishly dressed. Howard’s love of having a good time was infectious, and he incorporated it into his civil-rights organizing. Crowds flocked to the annual rallies of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a grassroots civil-rights and self-help organization he founded in 1951 not just to hear speakers such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan. They also came to see such entertainers as Mahalia Jackson, compete in sporting events, and sample home-made barbecue.

Unlike many of his better-known peers, Howard thrived as a doctor and entrepreneur before he emerged as a civil-rights leader. In 1942 he came to Mississippi to become chief surgeon at the Taborian Hospital in the allblack town of Mound Bayou. The International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a fraternal organization of nearly fifty thousand members in Mississippi, used the hospital to give low-cost medical care to thousands of poor people. Within five years, Howard had founded there various business and community enterprises, including a housing construction firm, a credit union, an insurance company, a restaurant with a beer garden, and a thousand-acre farm where he raised cattle, quail, hunting dogs, and cotton. He built a small zoo and park as well as the first swimming pool for blacks in Mississippi.

Howard left a deep imprint on black social and cultural life in the Delta. Myrlie Evers, who, like her husband Medgar, worked at Howard’s insurance company, came closest to capturing the essence of the man: “One look told you that he was a leader: kind, affluent, and intelligent, that rare Negro in Mississippi who had somehow beaten the system.” Through his Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Howard championed a message of self-help, mutual aid, thrift, and equal political rights. His business connections came in handy after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision. When the segregationist white citizens’ councils imposed a credit freeze on civil-rights activists, Howard found creative ways to fight back. At his suggestion, the NAACP organized a national campaign to urge black voluntary associations and businesses to deposit their money in the Tri-State Bank of Memphis. Tri-State, in turn, made this money available to blacks who were victims of the credit freeze.

It is not surprising that Howard became a favorite villain of segregationists. The Jackson Daily News, the main newspaper in Mississippi, considered him “Public Enemy No. 1” and a “big-mouthed Negro racial agitator.” Howard had a small arsenal in his home, including a Thompson submachine gun, and kept armed guards around the clock. More than once, Howard ran afoul of Mississippi’s discriminatory gun-control laws, which denied concealed-weapon permits to blacks.

Howard also had his share of black enemies. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was busily cultivating the goodwill of the FBI, disliked Howard’s militant tone and maverick stance. Marshall became so alarmed by Howard’s support for a proposed march of a million blacks on Washington, D.C., that he secretly conspired with J. Edgar Hoover to discredit him. According to an FBI report, Marshall had “no use for Howard and nothing would please him more than to see Howard completely crushed.”

During this period, Howard reached the height of his national influence, both professionally and in civil rights. In 1955 black doctors from around the country elected him head of the National Medical Association (NMA), the black counterpart to the American Medical Association. He used this position to promote civil rights as well as to expose second-class treatment in health care. One of the most important accomplishments of his term as NMA president was the Imhotep National Conference on Hospital Integration. Howard was also chair of the board of directors of the National Negro Business League, a black chamber of commerce founded by Booker T. Washington.

In the absence a predominant local black leader, civil-rights activists often turned to activists from other states for inspiration. Few of these were more prominent than Howard. His speeches on the Emmett Till case throughout the country drew thousands and received prominent coverage in the national black press. One of the stops on his speaking tour was at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on November 27, 1955. His host was Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks was in the audience. Howard’s speech was still headline news in the local black press four days later when Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Parks later reported that she was thinking of Emmett Till, a focal point of Howard’s speech, when she made her decision to act.

A defining feature of Howard’s life was to remake himself, again, again, and yet again. He was a surgeon, entrepreneur, civil-rights leader, and community builder. After his move to Chicago, he became a big-game hunter and party-giver on a grand scale. He dazzled the black social set by staging elaborate and expensive New Year’s Eve parties that featured live bands and the best soul food. The guest list often included his friends Jesse Owens, the former Olympic gold medalist, and Robert E. Johnson, publisher of Jet and Ebony. Howard’s unapologetic display of wealth and abundant self-confidence inspired many ordinary blacks in Chicago. They appreciated the fact that he was able to cross boundaries that few other black people could. Dick Gregory, then a struggling young comedian, commented that when Howard’s car appeared, “everybody waved . . . it was like Queen Elizabeth driving down the street in London. . . . When Howard walked into a night club, everything stopped. It was like the president walked in.” Howard’s big-game exploits took him on hunting expeditions to Africa, India, and Alaska. All this added to the mystique of a black man who dared to do the extraordinary.

 

The above is an excerpt from  “Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power “by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito. The excerpt above is posted courtesy of the Wall Street Journal. Copyright 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the University of Illinois Press.

Read the Wall Street Journal’s excerpt from the new book which explores the life and times of Dr. T.R.M. Howard.....

“A terrific book.”

—Timothy B. Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name

“A compelling...necessary biography. Howard played an important part in the Emmett Till story and in the entire civil-rights era. He deserves to be better known.”

Wall Street Journal

“This book brings him to life as a man of courage whose actions and views on civil rights shaped American history.”

—Juan Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize

“One of the most effective black civil rights leaders of his generation and a key figure in bringing civil rights to Mississippi and empowering black voters in Chicago.”

Harper’s

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Picture from the Emmett Till trial, taken in 1955. Left to Right: Two witnesses at the trial on the murder of Emmett Till, Mamie Till Mobley (Till's mother), T.R.M. Howard, Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, Amanda Bradley (trial witness). Credit: Press-Scimitar Collection.

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