UA Professor’s Biography of T.R.M. Howard Returns Civil Rights Leader to Prominence in American History
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Dr. T.R.M. Howard had a prescription for change in the South: He combined ambition, a strong head for business, friendships that crossed the color line, inspiring speeches and a refusal to accept the status quo. His influence in places like Mound Bayou, Miss., is still felt, and his force of will inspired Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks to contribute to the struggle for civil rights.
Howard was such a standout figure in the history of 20th century African-Americans that he also inspired two Tuscaloosa scholars to write Howard’s biography. Dr. David T. Beito, professor of history at The University of Alabama, and Dr. Linda Royster Beito, associate professor at Stillman College, have co-written “Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power.” David Beito says he was drawn to Howard’s story while he was exploring the history of fraternal orders in Mound Bayou, where Howard once practiced surgery and owned part of a hospital.
“I was attracted to Dr. Howard because he was such a significant and fascinating individual that I said I’d drop everything and got drawn in deeper and deeper to his story,” Beito says. “All the other projects I was thinking about were forgotten. We focused on his life story. We’re happy with our decision. We’re both proud of this book, and we both feel it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
At least one recent critic agrees with Beito about the quality of the work. Mark Bauerlein in The Wall Street Journal calls the book “a compelling biography . . . ‘Black Maverick’ is a necessary biography, too: Howard played an important part in the Emmett Till story, and in the entire civil-rights era. He deserves to be better known.”
Howard (1908-76) was born in Kentucky and attended college in Alabama and Nebraska. He was helped along the way by a white benefactor, and he earned a medical degree in California. After dabbling in California politics, he headed to Mound Bayou, Miss., where he managed to become one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the state through his medical and business dealings. Howard’s later civil rights work, particularly as president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, reflected his entrepreneurial spirit – he encouraged fellow blacks to succeed in business as they struggled for equality. Through the council, Howard mentored famed civil-rights leader Medgar Evers.
“Howard saw it as part of one package,” David Beito says. “He combined his civil rights organization with a black chamber of commerce. He was very much concerned with urging people to go into business, so it had a combination of chamber of commerce and civil rights organization.”
As he gained a following among African-Americans, he was able to walk into the corridors of white power, even influencing U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo, D-Miss., a noted segregationist. He was around whites from his childhood through his education and his practice in Mound Bayou, and his dynamic personality propelled him into bringing ideas to legislators.
“Howard was the kind of guy who would have been successful as a businessman in any context,” Beito says. “He was very confident, and he could pitch ideas. He could go into Senator Bilbo’s office, a leading racist, and pitch ideas to him. He wasn’t afraid. He had that ability to cross color lines and establish relationships.”
He also was noted for delivering thundering speeches throughout the South on civil rights, particularly on the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, an African-American, in 1955. One of Howard’s speeches may have inspired Rosa Parks to defy Montgomery segregation laws later that year.
“Rosa Parks wrote later that she had attended a speech Dr. Howard gave in Montgomery three or four days before she wouldn’t give up her seat on that bus,” Beito says. “The speech was on the Emmett Till murder, and she commented on this. She said that when she refused to give up her seat, she was thinking of Emmett Till.”
Howard’s speaking out on the Till case attracted the attention of a dangerous enemy – J. Edgar Hoover. When Howard criticized the FBI for not investigating Till’s murder more vigorously, Hoover fired back.
“Hoover was upset and wrote a letter to Dr. Howard but made sure it went out immediately as a public criticism of him, saying that Howard was irresponsible,” Beito says. “Black newspapers and white newspapers editorialized on it. The white newspapers of course were against Howard, and the black papers were for him. We often think of the FBI going after King, but this was a few years before that.”
With pressure for civil rights building in the South in the late 1950s, life for Howard and his family became more difficult. He had a 24-hour armed guard at his house. Eventually, Howard moved to Chicago, where he continued to practice medicine.
“There was rising white anger, and there had been death threats on him but also on his wife,” Beito says. “His wife had a stroke, and her brother-in-law said Mississippi did that. So Howard was worried about that. I don’t think he wanted to go, but I think he also perhaps saw Chicago could be a place where he would have opportunities. He ran for Congress, and maybe he saw that as a place where he could thrive.”
Although the Beitos found no convenient depository of Howard’s papers, they relied on extensive primary sources in their research, including letters Howard wrote to his benefactor, speeches, newspaper articles, court documents and numerous personal interviews. People still remember him in Mound Bayou and Chicago, where he had an impact of the African-American communities.
“You can tell his story pretty well because he’s in the black newspapers all the time, and in Mississippi he’s in the white newspapers, which are often quite critical of him,” Beito says. “He shows up in the strangest places, like court records. We found his parents’ divorce records from 1912, and that was quite revealing. It gave us a feel for what his childhood would have been like.”
Through their research, the Beitos have allowed Howard’s memory to rise again in the story of the civil rights struggle, and Howard’s legacy is clear.
“Without Dr. Howard, we probably would never have heard of Medgar Evers,” David Beito says. “Quite possibly, as the book explains, we might never have heard of Rosa Parks. So he’s a very significant figure.”
For a video of Howard speaking about civil rights, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OcnMSbGCTs.
The history department is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.
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