Friday, November 22, 2019

TRM Howard: civil rights pioneer, etc.

The David and Linda Beito biography of T.R.M. Howard is academic in substance and detail, but an easy read. Still, it is a long read, unless you're really into the broader topic of the American Civil Rights movement and its heroes. But even for those who won't want to read the entire book, it's worth it to read a review to learn a bit about an important but overlooked historical person.

By profession, Howard was a doctor. More broadly, he was an entrepreneur who dabbled in all sorts of business ventures, built hospitals, and constructed community resources, including a park and a swimming pool for blacks (54, 56). His legacy is a "testament to the largely unsung role of the black middle class during the 20th century." (xvii) Even outside of politics, his contributions to economic activity and civil society make him a fascinating figure. 

But Howard was also prominent in the Civil Rights movement. He had a tremendous influence on many of its leaders. Beyond M.L. King Jr, the Beitos link Howard to influencing Rosa Parks, being the key catalyst for Jesse Jackson's emergence (Jackson officiated at his funeral), his various tussles with Thurgood Marshall, his work with Medgar Evers, his correspondence with Roy Wilkins as the head of the NAACP, and as the subject of Juan Williams' work when he was a young journalist.

The most interesting part of the book: Howard was a key player in the Emmett Till murder trial. The Beitos devote two chapters to the Till story and Howard's role in it. (This is, by far, the most detail I've seen on this brutal incident.) Chapter 6 describes the murder and the trial in great detail. Chapter 7 covers the aftermath, with Howard helping to publicize new details about the crime that emerged after the trial. In this, he criticized the FBI in their role as investigators, which led to a public spat with J. Edgar Hoover (with Marshall defending Hoover behind the scenes).

In the Beitos' telling, Howard was a top-tier civil rights player. Why has he been relegated to historical anonymity? Some of this may be the vagaries of history, timing, etc. His influence in Mississippi peaked before the expanded reach of television. He was then superseded by others who were better placed to stay in our historical memories. He spent the last half of his public life in Chicago, making it difficult to put him in a convenient historical box-- as either Southern rural or Northern urban. (Of local interest, he was the son of tobacco workers, born in Murray KY, in 1908.) He was in between the more militant and more passive wings of the civil rights movement. So perhaps his fervent but still moderate approach doesn't catch an historical eye. But the larger problem seems to his complexity as a man who can't find eager champions.

The Beitos express surprise that Howard's complexity hasn't attracted more attention for him, since there's something to appeal to everybody, whether conservative, liberal. moderate, or libertarian (257). But that's also part of the problem, since people like their heroes to come without ideological or personal warts. Howard was a big game hunter (223, 228-229) with a "safari room" in his home who opposed gun control laws on racial grounds (116). He was a prominent abortionist and had a "pattern" of rampant infidelity, fathering many children from those dalliances (23, 72-73, 225). He was avidly opposed to the New Deal and efforts to subsidize people (32)-- and an anti-communist (thus, avoiding some of the negative attention that King received from the government). Howard went back and forth politically (191-192), in a time when African-Americans were not so beholden to a single political party. He finished as a Republican-- even running for Congress, and getting trounced by a long-time incumbent and member of the party machinery in Chicago (ch. 8, esp. 191-193, 210).

The Beitos' broader discussion of abortion was intriguing. They detail the debate about the eugenics aspects of abortion, noting Dick Gregory's opposition on those grounds (238). (They also describe Jesse Jackson's avid opposition to abortion into the 1980s until he ran for President [239-240].) Howard applied eugenics arguments to the disabled, but vigorously opposed them when applied to race (34-35). He saw abortion as an important option for the poor, even defining anti-abortion laws as "unjust" (44). (Of course the science has come a long way, so it'd be interesting to see what he would think today.) That said, most of his (illegal) abortions were for whites with financial means (94). Before Roe v. Wade, its illegality was determined by state, but he often worked around the law with bribes (190). He finally ran afoul of the law (much of ch. 9), causing him tremendous trouble toward the end of his professional and political life. 

Howard is a complex man whose life deserves more renown and more study. Thankfully, the Beitos have produced a book that documents this complexity and celebrates another key figure in a key era in American history.


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