Jerry Mitchell Of The Clarion Ledger
September 27, 2009
In the spring of 1954, more than 10,000 people gathered in Mound Bayou to eat barbecue and hear Thurgood Marshall speak.
Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a largely forgotten hero of Mississippi's civil rights movement, organized the event.
Now, 55 years later, the first-ever book on Howard -Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power - chronicles the life of this physician, wealthy entrepreneur, civil rights leader and big-game hunter.
"He doesn't fit our image of a Gandhian figure for a civil rights leader," said David Beito, who along with his wife, Linda, have related the journey of this native Mississippian.
Last week, the couple signed books at Lemuria Book Store and other stores across Mississippi.
John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, said the Beitos' book fills a valuable need. Many Mississippians have heard of early civil rights leaders such as Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry and Amzie Moore, but few have heard of Howard, he said.
"He was larger than life, and he minced no words," Dittmer said. "He blasted black doctors for driving around in Cadillacs and not getting involved in the civil rights movement."
Beito said many books on the civil rights movement don't mention Howard, despite the fact he started the Regional Council of Negro Leadership in Mississippi.
In proposing this black leadership council in 1951, Howard publicly called for "equal partnership" to solve Mississippi's racial problems, saying it took it more than being raised with black people to understand the black man.
"You have got to be a black man in Mississippi at least 24 hours to understand," said Howard, who served as chief surgeon at the Friendship clinic in Mound Bayou.
Howard was a mentor to Evers, who sold insurance for Howard. Together, they enlisted the help of others in boycotting gas stations that refused to let black Mississippians use the restroom.
They distributed bumper stickers that read "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom."
As the town's physician and surgeon, Howard delivered Evers' first two children, Darrell and Reena Evers. Evers' wife, Myrlie, served as a secretary for Howard.
After becoming field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, Evers sought to join the RCNL and the NAACP, but top NAACP leaders rejected this suggestion, Beito said.
In 1955, Howard became involved in the investigation into the killing of Emmett Till, a teenager from Chicago.
His home in Mound Bayou served as a safe house, where key witnesses stayed, including Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. And after the trial ended, Howard spoke around the country, helping to keep the case alive.
In 2004, after the FBI reopened the Till case, agents visited Beito and his wife because of their investigation into the case.
Not long after the Till trial ended, Howard suffered financial and death threats, forcing him and his family to move to Chicago.
Beito said he and his wife have often debated what might have happened if Howard had stayed.
One real possibility? He may have been shot or killed as many other civil rights leaders were in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, Beito said.
In Chicago, Howard continued his dedication to civil rights causes, but increasingly moved in other directions, Beito said.
He served as president of the National Medical Association, the association of black physicians, and sometimes traveled to Africa for safaris.
"He had a big room filled with stuffed animals," Beito said. "He was a renaissance man."
Howard had people skills comparable to politicians like Bill Clinton, he said. "He was a witty, very kindly fellow. He would make people feel they were the center of attention. He would stop and talk to maids and janitors and make them feel important."
The Mound Bayou surgeon provided an important link from the Booker T. Washington philosophy to a new era, Beito said.
"Without Dr. Howard, would you have had a Medgar Evers?" he asked. "Would you have even had a Fannie Lou Hamer, who got her first introduction to civil rights at Dr. Howard's meetings?"
Evers' brother, Charles, said Howard, who died in May 1976 at the age of 66, remains one of his heroes. "He was the actual founder of the movement years ago when it wasn't popular."
Visit http://www.trmhoward.com for more information...
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