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Mon November 2, 2009
"Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power"
Some mark the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. Some, closer to correct, mark it at the murder of Emmett Till. But no mass movement starts big, all of a sudden.
By Don Noble
Some mark the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. Some, closer to correct, mark it at the murder of Emmett Till. But no mass movement starts big, all of a sudden. In the 1940s and early fifties, many years before the Movement made the pages of the white press and then television, there were brave souls at work, in the north and in "the belly of the beast," Mississippi.
T. R. M. Howard was one of those mostly forgotten heroes.
Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was born in Western Kentucky in 1908. His start in life was not smooth. His father was violent, beating his mother. After their divorce in 1911 his mother remarried happily in 1913 and Theodore soon had six half-brothers and sisters. The family was poor. The times were violent, and Theodore's chances for survival, never mind success, seemed slim, but fate in the form of a distinguished and benevolent white physician, Dr. Will Mason, a Seventh-day Adventist, intervened. Dr. Mason took Howard under his wing, sent him to junior college, then college, then an Adventist medical school in California. Howard converted to Mason's belief, which made him one of very few black SDA's. In fact, he had been the only black student at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Howard was, to put it simply, an extraordinary person. He had endless energy, wrote convincingly, was so eloquent he won prizes for debate and public speaking, and excelled at his studies and later at the practice of medicine, especially surgery.
In a time when many were courageous and demonstrated leadership, Howard was almost one of a kind. Most Movement leaders were either pastors of large churches, like King or Abernathy, receiving their paycheck from parishioners, or grassroots community activists, like Fanny Lou Hamer. Few black activists, in Mississippi or anywhere else, were professionals or businessmen, with incomes not vulnerable to the cruel machinations of the white Citizens Councils, businessmen and planters who fired black help, evicted tenants, and foreclosed or refused loans to small black businesses if they sensed any participation in the Movement. Financially independent activists were rare and crucial.
Howard was singular. He organized mainly through fraternal organizations and pressed hard not necessarily for integration but for truly equal if separate facilities and spending in education, medical care, housing, and decent treatment by law enforcement. He organized nonviolent boycotts, but advocated being?and was himself?armed to the teeth. A successful surgeon in mostly black Mound Bayou, Mississippi, he also had business interests, over time, in hospitals, an insurance company, a bank, you can practically name it. He was both rich and generous, a philanthropist, gregarious, friendly to all, social to a fault.
The Beitos, history professors at UA and Stillman, have done a scrupulous job of research and told the story in a most readable way. They might have been tempted to confer sainthood on Howard but Howard made it fairly easy not to. Much of his income came from illegal abortions, first in Mississippi and then in Chicago, where he moved in the middle fifties. On Chicago's Southside, he built the Howard Clinic and often performed six abortions a day. His adulterous philandering was legendary. Over time Howard had a long series of mistresses and perhaps half a dozen illegitimate children. Only near the very end, when both were old and ill, did his wife Helen erupt, banning him from their house for a few months.
In Chicago, Howard took on the Cook County machine, even ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress. In Mississippi he had been a mentor to Medgar Evers; in Chicago he was, sometimes uncomfortably, a mentor to Jesse Jackson. Howard, always flamboyant, in later life took up African big game hunting, declared himself the number one black hunter in America, and built onto his house the "safari room," housing two dozen stuffed animals, including a tiger, a lion and a zebra. They don't make them like that anymore, and they only made the one.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."