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May 1, 2006

T.R.M. Howard: Thirty Years Later

T.R.M. Howard (pictured fourth from the left during the Emmett Till trial) died thirty years ago on this date. He made his mark whether it was in business, voluntary mutual aid, or politics. He rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest blacks in Mississippi. His investments included an insurance company, home construction firm, cotton plantation, and small zoo. His hospital in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi gave low-cost health care to thousands of poor blacks.

During the early 1950s, he led the largest civil rights/pro-self help civil rights organization in Mississippi. He was a mentor to Medgar Evers and played prominent role in the investigation of the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. He was also president of the National Medical Association, the black counterpart of the AMA.

Howard was born in the town of Murray, Kentucky. His parents were tobacco twisters and his mother was a cook for Will Mason, a prominent local white doctor and member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA). Mason took note of the boy’s work habits, talent, ambition, and charm. He put him to work in his hospital and eventually paid for much of his medical education. Howard later showed his gratitude by adding Mason as one of his middle names.

While attending medical school at Loma Linda University in Los Angeles, he was a regular columnist for the main black newspaper, the California Eagle. His columns promoted black business, self-help, and attacked efforts to impose segregation in the city. Howard was always unpredictable. Despite his SDA roots, he promoted the legalization of prostitution.

In 1942, Several years after getting his medical degree at Loma Linda University, Howard took over as the first chief surgeon at the hospital of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a fraternal organization, in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. While there, he founded an insurance company, restaurant, hospital, home construction firm, and a large farm where he raised cattle, quail, hunting dogs, and cotton. He also built a small zoo and a park as well as the first swimming pool for blacks in Mississippi. In 1947, he broke with the Knights and Daughters, organized the rival United Order of Friendship, and opened the Friendship Clinic.

Howard rose to prominence as a civil rights leader after founding the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in 1951. His compatriots in the League included Medgar Evers, who Howard had hired as an agent for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. The RCNL mounted a successful boycott against service stations that denied restrooms to blacks and distributed twenty thousand bumper stickers with the slogan,"Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom."

The RCNL organized yearly rallies in Mound Bayou for civil rights. Sometimes as many as ten thousand attended including such future activists as Fannie Lou Hamer. Some of the speakers included Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall. One of the entertainers was Mahalia Jackson.

In 1954, Howard hatched a plan to fight a credit squeeze by the White Citizens Councils against civil rights activists in Mississippi. At his suggestion, the NAACP under Roy Wilkins encouraged businesses, churches, and voluntary associations to transfer their accounts to the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis. The funds were made available for loans to victims of the squeeze.

Howard moved into the national limelight as never before after the murder of Emmett Till in August 1955 and the trial of his killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in September. He was heavily involved in the search for evidence and gave over his home to be a “black command center” for witnesses and journalists. Visitors noticed the high level of security, including armed guards and a plethora of weapons. He also evaded Mississippi’s discriminatory gun control laws by hiding a pistol in a secret compartment of his car. Mamie Bradley (Emmett’s mother) stayed at his home when she came to testify as did Charles Diggs. Like many black journalists and political leaders, Howard alleged that more than two people took part in the crime.

After an all-white jury acquitted Milam and Bryant, Howard gave dozens of speeches around the country on the Till killing and other violence in Mississippi, typically to crowds of several thousand. One of them was to an overflow crowd on November 27 in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. His host for the event was Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks was in the audience. Many years later, she singled out Howard’s appearance as the “first mass meeting that we had in Montgomery” following Till’s death. Only four days after his speech, Parks made history by refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white man in violation of a segregation ordinance.

In the final months of 1955, Howard and his family were increasingly subjected to death threats and economic pressure. He sold most of his property and moved permanently in Chicago, Illinois. His national reputation as a civil rights leader still seemed secure. He also had a highly visible public dispute with J. Edgar Hoover who he accused of slowness to find the killers of blacks in the South. In early 1956, the Chicago Defender gave Howard the top spot on its annual national honor role. He served for one year as president of the National Medical Association, the black counterpart of the AMA. Howard also became medical director of S.B. Fuller Products Company. Samuel B. Fuller was probably the richest black man in the country.

In 1958, Howard ran for Congress as a Republican against the powerful incumbent black Democrat, Rep. William Levi Dawson, a close ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Although he received much favorable media publicity, and support from leading black opponents of the Daley machine, Dawson overwhelmed him at the polls.

During his years in Chicago, Howard attention increasingly focused on big game hunting, and made several trips to Africa for this purpose. His Chicago mansion included a “safari room” filled with trophies that was often made available for public tours. His New Year’s parties, co-hosted by his wife Helen Howard, were a regular stop for the Chicago’s black social set. He also became well-known as a leading abortion provider and was arrested in 1964 and 1965 but never convicted. Howard regarded this work as complementary to his earlier civil rights activism.

In 1972, Howard founded the multimillion dollar Friendship Medical Center on the South Side, the largest privately owned black clinic in Chicago. The staff of about one hundred and sixty included twenty-seven doctors in such fields as pediatrics, dental care, a pharmacy, ear, nose, and throat, and psychological and drug counseling. He died in Chicago after many years of deteriorating health.

Photo : Picture 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, Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries.

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