Why Is Civil Rights Hero T.R.M. Howard Still Ignored?


David T. Beito, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, and Linda Royster Beito, a professor of social sciences at Stillman College, are the authors of Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power.

Fifty-four years ago this month, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy visiting family in Mississippi, was abducted, mutilated and murdered. Several days later, his horribly disfigured body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River. Many such tragedies had happened to black Americans before and then been ignored.  The Till case was different because of the efforts of a flamboyant and wealthy black planter and surgeon, T.R.M. Howard.  Howard was pivotal in both investigating and publicizing the case.

Howard's importance in American history went far beyond that, however.  Without Howard, we might never have heard of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, or Operation PUSH.  Howard was the critical link connecting the Till slaying and the rise of the modern civil rights movement.

Yet he was an unlikely civil rights hero.  Howard was a prosperous businessman who spared no expense in his wardrobe, sped down the highway in expensive Cadillacs, gambled regularly on horses, ran a successful hospital that provided affordable health care, hunted big game on African safaris, owned a 1,000-acre cotton plantation, and preached a gospel of entrepreneurship and self-help.

Before his quest for justice in the 1955 Emmett Till murder, Howard had led successful boycotts for equal rights and massive rallies in rural Mississippi. Medgar Evers, who went on to become a celebrated civil rights activist and martyr, got his introduction to both business and activism when Howard hired him as a salesman for the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of Howard's many business ventures. Howard encouraged Evers to get involved with Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a civil rights group Howard had founded in 1951. (Howard would go on to play a similar mentoring role to the young Fannie Lou Hamer.) 

Till's murder moved Howard to even greater efforts. Vowing “hell to pay in Mississippi,” Howard gave over his home as a “command center” for black journalists and witnesses including Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett’s mother).  Moving to the center of the investigation, he doggedly pushed the theory that more people had been involved in the crime than the two white half brothers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant.  Sadly, as Howard had predicted in September 1955, the all-white jury ignored the overwhelming evidence and acquitted Milam and Bryant. Howard remarked bitterly that a white man was less likely to suffer a penalty for such a crime than for “killing deer out of season.”

But the acquittal was just the beginning of T.R.M. Howard's fight. In the months after the trial he gave speeches across the country to crowds of thousands, demanding a federal investigation.  Mississippi’s white press, which had once lauded Howard’s self-help activities, was outraged.   The Jackson Daily News castigated Howard as “Public Enemy No. 1.”  So scathing was Howard’s criticism of the FBI’s failure to protect blacks that J. Edgar Hoover took the rare step of denouncing Howard in an open letter. 

One of the least publicized stops on Howard’s speaking tour was to an overflow crowd on November 27 in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  The official host was a largely unknown twenty-six year old pastor named 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 she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.  Parks reported that she was thinking of Emmett Till, a focal point of Howard’s speech, when she made her decision to act.  

Why isn't this larger-than-life figure better known? Howard, a classically American "man on the make," is hard to pigeonhole. His secular orientation and pro-business ideas made him an anomaly in a civil rights movement dominated by church leaders and left-liberal activists. Politically, his activities offer something to please and offend everybody: A staunch Republican and friend of President Dwight Eisenhower, Howard was also a committed feminist whose clinics offered safe abortions in the period before Roe v. Wade.

But those who knew T.R.M. Howard (who died in 1976, at age 68) still speak about his energy, charisma and commitment. “The man was dynamic,” recalled Mamie Till-Mobley. “I just thought he was the greatest in the world.” 

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Maria Rosa - 4/11/2010

Why Is Civil Rights Hero T.R.M. Howard Still Ignored?
By David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito
I found this article interesting because Rosa Parks heard T.R.M Howad lecture days before she refused to get up and give her seat to a white person as expected at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama where 26-year-old, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and was the pastor. That she was thinking of Emmett Till in the lecture she heard "when she made her decision to act," is fascinating to read. Thus, the Emmett till case served as a catalyst to the Civil Rights Movement. But the left-liberal and church dominated Civil Rights Movement leaders the Beitos purport is questionable as a thesis. A business occupation for Blacks was not uncommon not an anomaly. While T.R.M; Howard who died in 1978 at the age of 68 was born in 1910 could just be part of the scholarly neglect others of his race historically faced still many in oblivion simply as the conspiracy to cover up the history of African-Americans and the African diaspora here and abroad.

David T. Beito - 8/31/2009

Thanks! It is still a puzzle as to why this took so long.

Other good sources on Howard were Dittmer's Local People and Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom. We were extremely lucky to be able to do the first to do a full bio on this fascinating and important figure in American hsitory

James W Loewen - 8/31/2009

It's great to have a biography of T.R.M. Howard. He also played a key role when Black Mississippi leaders refused to agree with Mississippi's governor who convened them to denounce BROWN V BD in 1954.
He lived in Mound Bayou, a black town founded by (inter alia) Isaiah T. Montgomery, formerly a slave owned by Jefferson Davis and his brother. Mound Bayou also deserves a book.
Howard gets some ink in MISSISSIPPI: CONFLICT AND CHANGE, a history of Mississippi written in the early 1970s that occasioned the First Amendment case LOEWEN V TURNIPSEED.