Historians have not adequately appreciated the importance of businesspeople and professionals as pioneers in early civil-rights movements.
- David and Linda Beito
Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power by David and Linda Beito (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, IL, 2009)
Fame is fleeting, and those who during their lifetime attain the debatable benefits of public acclaim will often, upon their death, have their memory entombed with them. Such is the case with T.R.M. Howard, who for a time was one of America’s most widely known, colorful, and respected civil rights pioneers. The husband and wife team of David and Linda Beito have labored nearly a decade to write a biography, Black Maverick, in hopes that they can raise the man’s memory from the grave. The book was worth the wait.
Well-written and deeply researched, the authors immerse the reader into Dr. Howard’s world, one that crossed paths with a litany of American greats such as MLK, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Jesse Owens. Four days after seeing Dr. Howard give an impassioned speech at MLK’s Baptist Church, Rosa Parks took her famous stand against Jim Crow. She insisted that it was the thought of Emmett Till, who’s lynching was the subject of Dr. Howard’s speech, which spurred her to refuse to give up her bus seat.
As to why the memory of a man with such a litany of famous friends and accomplishments – a man of whom the authors insist "the modern Civil Rights movement could not have succeeded" (p.228) -- should have faded so quickly and completely from our collective memory, this book will answer to any reader’s satisfaction.
A Life More Than Ordinary
The salvation of the American Negro lies within the American Negro.
- T.R.M. Howard
Born Theodore Roosevelt Howard (later adding "Mason" to his name in tribute to a white patron) on March 2, 1908 into a family of poor tobacco factory workers, like almost every American cursed to live under Jim Crow bearing the stigma of having too dark a skin tone he was seemingly condemned to a life of subservience and poverty. The fact that Dr. Howard beat the system and rose to wealth and prominence gives credence to all the peons written by his contemporaries concerning his intelligence, charisma, and work ethic. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary man.
Cursed with a violent, abusive father but blessed with a wonderful, loving grandmother (Almeda Chandler) who "imparted a sense of history and nurtured his prodigious work ethic" (p.5), Dr. Howard had the luck to come under the eye of – and make a favorable impression upon – his small town’s local doctor, the white Dr. Will Mason. Asking a young Dr. Howard if he wished to be a doctor one day, "without hesitation, he (Dr. Howard) answered yes". (p.9)
The authors note that he "could not have found a better patron and conduit to the outside world". (p.9) An incredibly likable young man, Dr. Howard "was comfortable in the presence of powerful whites and they with him" (p.13) a distinct necessity for advancement in the Jim Crow South. He took every advantage he could find, using them to earn his educational degrees and eventually become the medical director of Nashville’s Riverside Sanitarium.
It was during his college years when "Howard discovered and honed his talents as a natural born speaker". (p.13) In January 1930, he won the national finals in Detroit for public speaking, winning over an audience of thousands. (p.17) Years later Charles Evers would remember, "people called Martin Luther King, Jr. the Negro orator of the century. T.R.M. Howard was as good, or better, and I heard them both in their prime." (p. xii)
This gift of the gab and charisma would help him win the hand of a rich, beautiful Los Angeles socialite named Helen Nela Boyd, whom he fell in love with and married in 1935. The former would give him entrée into the world of political activism, the latter, whose heart he won after "a determined campaign" (p.25) gave him entrée into the world of the black upper class. Their wedding in 1935 was "the black social event of the season". (p.38)
A great admirer of Booker T. Washington, Dr. Howard embodied that great man’s philosophy of hard work, frugality, and entrepreneurship; he declared, "thrift, industry, and business efficiency must become an integral part of the Negro’s religion". (p.74) Like Mr. Washington he did not care for "social equality", instead demanding equality before the law, "equality in the protection of our homes and equality in chances to make our daily bread." (p.74)
In 1941 Dr. Howard made the most momentous decision of his life, agreeing to become the medical director for the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a town of black self-rule in a sea of Jim Crow white supremacy. It was there that he would mint his fortune and reach the heights of his fame.
After establishing himself on a firm financial footing, Dr. Howard turned his energies to civil rights, creating the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in 1951 and leading it to victory in boycotting any gas station that refused to provide restrooms to black customers. But more than anything, it was the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 that "helped to reshape not only Howard’s life but the entire course of black history in the United States". (p.115) It was his leadership of and protection he gave to the black witnesses that would make Dr. Howard a national civil rights leader and, not a small thing in Jim Crow South, deprive him of his white patrons and supporters.
In the book’s most riveting chapter, Mr. and Mrs. Beito give an impassioned, exciting blow by blow account of the trial of the men who murdered the 14 year old Emmett Till (though blatantly guilty, an all-white jury set them free), and highlight not only the "white terrorism" (p.70) that kept Jim Crow the law of the land, but also the bravery of Dr. Howard and the others who worked to see that justice was done.
Sadly it was not, and after seeing the white elite of Mississippi use gun control, revocation of auto insurance and bank credit, income tax audits, threats of military conscription and, when all else failed, murder to keep the status quo of a subservient black population, Dr. Howard would move north to Chicago, a move which likely kept him from an early grave. Leaving Mississippi would draw the curtain down on his days as a civil rights leader.
Throughout the book, Mr. and Mrs. Beito do a sparkling job bringing to life Dr. Howard, his energy (he was a "workaholic" p.26), his flamboyance (he had a "habit of hunting deer from an air conditioned Cadillac" p.162), and his personal bravery in battling to establish the rule of law in the South. But that is not all that recommends this work.
Ludwig Von Mises was of the opinion that "a good part of the...contributions to economic and social history is almost useless on account of the writers’ insufficient grasp of economics". So one of the many pleasures of Black Maverick was the solid grasp of economics shown by the authors, most prominently displayed in a passage that explains why Dr. Howard’s last major business venture, Chicago’s Friendship Medical Center, fell into disarray and bankrupted him. "The lifeblood of the new FMC...was government money, which constituted nine of every ten dollars of revenue. This dependence on taxpayer funding undercut the motivation to use resources efficiently and sparingly." (p.221)
I have rarely put a book down so I could rise out of my seat and give it a standing ovation, but after that passage I couldn’t help myself.
I don’t mind, don’t mind if you forget me,
I never left an impression on anyone
It is said that most biographers tend to fall in love with their subjects, allowing none but favorable light to fall upon the sainted visage they are constructing, page by loving page. It is notable that Mr. and Mrs. Beito do no such thing; throughout the book Dr. Howard’s faults are made to stand in review next to his favors, giving the reader a clear, unsullied look at the type of man he was.
In the final tally, his memory has faded into oblivion because posterity has decided his negatives outweighed his positives. Why that is can be summed up in two words: infidelity and abortion.
Dr. Howard’s almost manic, sustained life-long habit of having affairs and -- to further insult his barren wife -- bearing children with the women he was seeing on the side was prolific, to say the least. It slowly poisoned his marriage beyond repair and, even more damning to his memory, seriously damaged the children he irresponsibly bought into the world. "He fathered at least eight children to a variety of mothers...deprived of a stable family life and starved for attention, his children...often had a difficult time." (p.226)
Dr. Howard was no fool and was completely aware of this, and towards the very end of his life he even made a point to "apologize for not being a good father". (p.224) The fact is he was not a poor father -- he was no father at all. Such behavior is not conducive to a respectable legacy. We expect and accept such behavior from musicians (B.B. King fathered 15 children from 15 different women – none of them his wife) but not from our civil rights leaders.
More than anything else, though, the lasting damage to his legacy was the fact that while he delivered thousands of babies during his long medical career, he aborted thousands, too. The authors record that after his move to Chicago, "Howard completed the transition from a widely acknowledged national leader in civil rights, business, and medicine, to one of Chicago’s most notorious abortionists." (p.196)
Partly it was out of principle, but mostly it comes across as being done for purely pecuniary reasons. "Illegal abortions had certainly yielded a lavish lifestyle" (p.201) and much of the wealth he acquired during his lifetime was a direct result of this practice. Even when he envisioned and built as his life’s final work of Chicago’s Friendship Medical Center (FMC) "abortions were always central to his conception of the bottom line". (p.210) Despite his best efforts to promote the traditional medical aspect of the clinic, the pall of abortion hung over it, depriving it of respectability. Eventually, it deprived him of the same.
As soon as the Supreme Court declared abortion legal as of March 1, 1973, Dr. Howard’s clinic was ready to go, it "became the first clinic in Illinois to perform a legal abortion. One of the first on the table was a fourteen year old girl." (p.213) The FMC became known as the go-to for abortions, "and the abortion-mill tag made for a constant struggle to recruit and keep good doctors". (p.214)
But if it is any consolation to those, like me, who feel his memory should be better known it lies in Dr. Howard’s attitude towards his own fame. He never came across as having the type of ego that required public acclaim to feed it. "Howard’s days as a national civil rights leader had ended, but he was apparently not resentful about this fact." (p.188) As his fame dimmed, he seemed not to care.
David and Linda Beito note that toward the end of his days Dr. Howard "increasingly aspired, however, to have his involvement (in civil rights movements) take the form of a behind-the-scenes financial angel" (p.207) and that, when all is said and done, is exactly where history has placed him in the pantheon of civil rights leaders. "For many Howard was becoming a distant memory. The rapid emergence of a new generation of civil rights activists pushed his legacy further into the background" (p.194) and that is where he will remain.
By the time of his passing on May 1, 1976, Dr. Howard’s estate was bankrupt, so much so that his "grave did not even have a tombstone until several years after his death". (p.225) It is telling that when he breathed his last there were no weeping children, grandchildren, or loving spouse at his side; even the public had forgotten him. "Outside of the black press in Chicago, few noted his passing". (p.224) Dr. Howard died alone and insolvent. It was a sad ending to an extraordinary life, and shows that no matter how far a man may rise in the end he will reap what he has sown.
Due to a civil rights movement based around the bastion of the black church, his open, lifelong profession as an abortionist has, despite his many other positive contributions, sullied his name and likely made him a too much of an embarrassment. Consequently, no civil rights organization will adopt him as its own, so Dr. Howard’s memory has no champions. This is not likely to change.
By bringing the man so clearly into focus, warts and all, this finely written, incredibly important biography will do more to push Dr. Howard further into the background than to earn him the recognition he so richly deserves. Dr. Howard will remain largely forgotten, despite, and ironically because of, this spirited and engaging biography.