Mississippi Yearning

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Time is short and I’m not a speed reader, so I choose serious books carefully. I was reluctant to read “Black Maverick” by David Beito and Linda Royster Beito because I knew both too much and too little about its setting.

“Black Maverick” is a biography of T.R.M. Howard, a figure in mid-20th- century Mississippi history who has until now been largely ignored. A physician and businessman, he was a leader of blacks as the civil rights movement began to take shape in Mississippi in the 1950s. He is not well known – for a couple of reasons. For one, he worked in Mississippi before the most active phase of civil rights in the state. For another, he was primarily a physician, businessman, and leader in the self- help movement represented by mutual aid societies. Specifically, he was active in the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. That society provided low-cost healthcare for its members and built its own hospital,

where Howard practiced medicine.
I know something about civil rights in Mississippi. As a teenager, I went to Clarksdale as part of the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. That was a project of the Council of Federated Organizations (involving also SNCC and CORE), designed to shake up racial relations in the state by bringing in northern students to register voters and teach in freedom schools. That Mississippi sum- mer is best known for the cold-blooded murder of three of the group’s young men. The story is captured in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Living in Clarksdale, I quickly learned the names of such people as Aaron Henry, the head of Mississippi’s NAACP chapter; Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who had been murdered the year before; and his brother, Charles Evers, who returned from Chicago after his brother’s death. And it was impossible to spend much time in the black community of Coahoma County without hear- ing about the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, even though it had happened nine years before.

But I did not hear of T.R.M. Howard until 2008, when David Beito mentioned him in a lecture he gave in North Carolina. Howard didn’t sound like a hero to me, especially because there were some unsavory elements in his life. For one thing, he philandered, fathering a number of illegitimate children. In addition, he was an enthusiastic and well-paid abortionist long before abortion was legal. Although I support abortion (within limits), the businesslike acceptance of a career built on illegal abortions seemed to devalue his civil rights heroism.

Yet once I read “Black Maverick,” I changed my mind about Howard, just as David Beito hoped I would (and, he says, others have too). In some ways, Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was a larger-than-life figure. Even while living in Mississippi in the Jim Crow era, he had”a zest for life,” as the Beitos say. He I I sped down the high- way in his Cadillac which was always the latest model,” and later on became a big-game hunter.

Even so, he was a sensitive doc- tor, who, according to Medgar Evers’ widow, had /Ia friendly smile, and a hearty handshake, and there was about him an aura of security so lack- ing among the vast majority of Negroes in the Delta that he stood out as different wherever he went.” The Beitos describe him as a restless man, “I always in the process of starting a program.” In addition, he seemed able to focus on his interests and goals without expressing much in the way of resentment or self-pity when they were challenged or frustrated

Howard was born in 1908 in Murray, Kentucky. As a youth, he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A white doctor who was also an Adventist became his mentor, directing him to Union College, an Adventist school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the College of Medical Evangelists at Lorna Linda, California. While in California, Howard became a columnist for the California Eagle, a black newspaper in Los Angeles. After graduating from medical school, he worked as a physician in St. Louis and Nashville.

In 1941, Howard moved to Mound Bayou, an all-black town. The International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor had raised enough money to build a hospital. It hired him as its chief surgeon.

After establishing himself as a Taborian doctor, Howard engaged in other enterprises, from an insurance company to a restaurant with a beer garden. And he began organizing businessmen in the Mississippi Delta. In 1951 he helped to found the Regional Council for Negro Leadership (RCNL), an organization of black business leaders that countered the white- supremacist Delta Council. The RCNL became a vehicle for developing black leadership, convening giant meetings in Mound Bayou that brought in well- known figures from outside the South, such as William Dawson, a black congressman from Illinois, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Among the many things that Howard did, two actions stand out. In 1952, he led a successful boycott of gas stations that didn’t provide restrooms for blacks. In 1955, he pressed for the prosecution of the accused murderers of Emmett Till. Without pressure from Howard, including his protection of a key witness, the trial might never have happened or would have been a complete travesty.

Yet even with Howard’s help, the trial in Sumner, Mississippi, was not a fair one. Witnesses were intimidated, the prosecution was weak, and the jury had made up its mind (as its members later revealed) before the evidence appeared. It came as no surprise that the accused men were acquitted. Even so, it represented an advance over previous treatment of blacks in Mississippi: at least there was a trial, and it attracted national publicity.

In 1956, Howard moved to Chicago, where he continued to be an outspoken figure, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Richard J. Daley’s political machine in the city’s South Side. He also created a medical center, and, when abortions became legal in 1973, he championed them. His picture appeared on the cover of Jet magazine conducting an abortion. He died in Chicago in 1976.

With this book, the Beitos fill in two important gaps in history. First, they rescue an important and fascinating figure from neglect. Second, they expand today’s perception of the civil rights movement, making it clear that not all black civil rights heroes were preachers or elected politicians. As they write in their introduction, Howard’s life is a U testament to the largely unsung role of the black middle class during the 20th century.”

While making these contributions, the Beitos also reveal the unpredictable plasticity of history. In the early 1950s, before Brown v. Board of Education had been decided, Howard and other leaders struggled to bring Mississippi into the 20th century. Those were years of searching, of trying to find ways to improve the lot of blacks in the Deep South. While never bowing to the white power structure, Howard tried to sustain a relationship with it, an approach that sometimes put him at odds with the NAACP, which on a national level was developing the legal case for school integration. Indeed, Howard initially hoped that the RNCL and the Delta Council would be able to work together. As the Beitos write, “Howard could be fearless in waging war against inequality and disenfranchisement, but he was not a man to tilt at windmills.”

At the time, of course, no one could predict the conflicts that lay ahead. It was impossible to know “the lengths to which [white] opponents would go in fighting to defend and expand their state’s system of racial supremacy.” The opponents probably didn’t know, either, and perhaps, with luck, history might have developed differently. But by 1956, it was becoming clear that Mississippi would be a place of violence, and that even prominent figures such as Howard were not going to be exempt. That was probably one reason why Howard decided to move to Chicago, following the path of many blacks from the Mississippi Delta, to start a new life.

The Beitos have packed vivid stories into this 300-page biography, a lot more than I have mentioned here, so the book makes good reading. And their attention to historical detail seems almost perfect. They investigated a vast array of archival sources, they con- ducted interviews of people who knew Howard, and they located recordings of Howard’s speeches.

The result is compelling. T.R.M. Howard should be recognized for his role in laying the foundation for the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Thanks to David and Linda Royster Beito, now he will be.

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