T. R. M. Howard

"Theodore Howard" redirects here. For other uses, see Theodore Howard (disambiguation).
T. R. M. Howard
Born Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard
(1908-03-04)March 4, 1908
Murray, Kentucky, United States
Died May 1, 1976(1976-05-01) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Fields Surgeon
Alma mater Oakwood University
Union College of Lincoln
College of Medical Evangelists

Theodore Roosevelt Mason "T. R. M." Howard (March 4, 1908 – May 1, 1976) was an American civil rights leader, fraternal organization leader, entrepreneur and surgeon. He was one of the mentors to activists such as Medgar Evers, Charles Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, and Jesse Jackson, founded Mississippi's leading civil rights organization in the 1950s, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, and played a prominent role in the investigation of the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. He was also president of the National Medical Association and chairman of the board of the National Negro Business League.


Early years

Howard was born in Murray, Kentucky to Arthur Howard, a tobacco twister, and Mary Chandler, a cook for Will Mason, a prominent local white doctor and member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 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.

Howard attended three Adventist colleges; the historically black Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama, the then nearly all-white Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University) in Loma Linda, California. While at Union College, he won the Anti-Saloon League of America's national contest for best orator in 1930.

During his years in medical school in California, Howard took part in civil rights and political causes and wrote a regular column for the California Eagle, the main black newspaper of Los Angeles. He was also the president of the California Economic, Commercial, and Political League. Through the League and his columns, he championed black business ownership, the study of black history, and opposed local efforts to introduce segregation. In 1935, he began a 41-year marriage with prominent black socialite Helen Nela Boyd. After a residency at Homer G. Phillips Hospital (in St. Louis, Missouri), Howard became the medical director of the Riverside Sanitarium, the main Adventist health care institution to serve blacks.


In 1942, Howard took over as the first chief surgeon at the hospital of the International Order of Twelve 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 addition to his duties at the hospital, Howard operated a thriving private practice, where his specialties soon included the discreet provision of illegal abortions (for both black and white patients), a practice he justified as a matter of both individual rights and family planning. (He also favored legalizing prostitution, arguing that man's sinful nature made it impossible to suppress the sex trade.)"[1]

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 and Aaron Henry, a future leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. 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 and Amzie Moore. Some of the speakers were Rep. William L. Dawson of Chicago, Alderman Archibald J. Carey, Jr. of Chicago, 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.

Emmett Till affair

Main article: Emmett Till

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 delivered "[o]ne of the earliest and loudest denunciations of Till's murder," saying that if "the slaughtering of Negroes is allowed to continue, Mississippi will have a civil war. Negroes are only going to take so much."[1] He was also heavily involved in the search for evidence and gave over his home to be a "black command center" for witnesses and journalists, including Clotye Murdock Larsson of Ebony magazine and Rep. Charles Diggs.[1] "Recognizing that local officials had little incentive to identify or punish every member of the conspiracy that took Till's life, he spearheaded a private investigation, personally helping to locate, interview, and protect several important witnesses."[1]

Visitors noticed the high level of security, including armed guards and a plethora of weapons. Historians David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito have written that Howard's residence "was so impregnable that journalists and politicians from a later era might have used the word 'compound' rather than 'home' to describe it."[1] Howard evaded Mississippi's discriminatory gun control laws by hiding a pistol in a secret compartment of his car, and "slept with a Thompson submachine gun at the foot of his bed."[2] He brought Emmett's mother Mamie Till Bradley in from Chicago at his own expense, and she stayed at his home when she came to testify. Howard "escorted [Bradley] and various others to and from the courthouse in a heavily-armed caravan."[2] 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.[1]

Howard's speaking tour culminated in a rally for twenty thousand at Madison Square Garden, where he was the featured speaker. He shared the stage with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Eleanor Roosevelt and Autherine Lucy.

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 to Chicago. His national reputation as a civil rights leader still seemed secure. He also had a highly visible public dispute with J. Edgar Hoover, whom 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 roll. He founded the Howard Medical Center on the South Side and 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 wealthiest black man in the country at the time.[3]


Howard was somewhat unique among prominent civil rights leaders by virtue of his outspoken opposition to socialism and consistent praise of Booker Washington who he regarded as a "towering genius" for his emphasis on self-help and entrepreneurship. He "had little patience for the utopian schemes of the far left, declaring at one point that he wished 'one bomb could be fashioned that would blow every Communist in America right back to Russia where they belong.' In a similar vein, he maintained, 'There is not a thing wrong with Mississippi today that real Jeffersonian democracy and the religion of Jesus Christ cannot solve.'"[1]

In 1958, Howard ran for Congress as a Republican against the powerful incumbent black Democrat, Rep. William L. 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. Howard was unable to counter Dawson's efficient political organization and rising voter discontent from the economic recession and the slowness of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to back civil rights in the South.

Shortly before the election, Howard helped to found the Chicago League of Negro Voters. The League generally opposed the Daley organization and promoted the election of black candidates in both parties. It nurtured the black independent movement of the 1960s and 1970s which eventually propelled four of Howard's friends to higher office: Ralph Metcalfe, Charles Hayes, and Gus Savage to Congress and Harold Washington as mayor.

In the two decades after the election, Howard had little role as a national leader but he remained important locally. He chaired a Chicago committee in 1965 to raise money for the children of the recently assassinated leader, Malcolm X. Later, he was an early contributor to the Chicago chapter of the SCLC's Operation Breadbasket under Jesse Jackson. In 1971, Operation PUSH was founded in Howard's Chicago home and he chaired the organization's finance committee.

Electoral history

Year Office Republican Pct Democrat Pct
1958 U.S House of Representatives
, Illinois, District 1
T.R.M Howard 27.8% William Dawson 72.2%

Friendship Medical Center

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. Friendship Medical Center fell into scandal when the Chicago Sun-Times, along with the Better Government Association, investigated Chicago abortion practices. The Sun-Times reported the deaths of three Friendship Medical Center abortion patients, including one who died in 1973 after an abortion that her survivors alleged had been performed by Howard himself.[4][5] Howard countered that the FMC had performed 1,500 legal abortions thus far, more than any other Illinois provider. Given such numbers, he concluded, only six major complications were not unusual. A lack of detailed comparative statistics makes it almost impossible to determine if he was right. To Howard, the hue and cry was a smokescreen by the medical and political establishment to quash their lower-priced competitors. He had a basis for this belief. An abortion at the FMC cost about fifty dollars less than at hospitals.[6]

Personal life

During his years in Chicago, Howard's 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 Eve parties, co-hosted by 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.

Howard died in Chicago on May 1, 1976 after many years of deteriorating health. The Reverend Jesse Jackson officiated at the funeral.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Root, Damon (March 20, 2009). "A Forgotten Civil Rights Hero". Reason.
  2. 1 2 Root, Damon (January 19, 2011). "Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Armed Self-Defense". Reason.
  3. Beito, David T. (May 1, 2006). "T.R.M. Howard: Thirty Years Later". History News Network. George Mason University. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
  4. Pamela Zekman; Pamela Warrick (November 12, 1978). "The Abortion Profiteers" (PDF). The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  5. Illinois Death Certificate No. C612195
  6. Beito, David T.; Beito, Linda Royster (2009). Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (First ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 213–214. ISBN 978-0-252-03420-6.

Further reading

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