David Beito says bias has excluded civil rights leader T.R.M. Howard from pantheon





T.R.M. Howard was not everyone’s idea of a civil rights hero, and his accomplishments have been widely neglected. But as historian David Beito and sociologist Linda Royster Beito demonstrate in their book Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power, he was in fact one of the most effective black civil rights leaders of his generation and a key figure in bringing civil rights to Mississippi and empowering black voters in Chicago. I put six questions to David Beito about his new book.

1. Howard’s life puts him at the center of a number of historic events, usually playing a vital role, particularly in the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties, yet his name rarely figures in the short list of leadership figures cited in the media. Has his role been underappreciated?

Beito: Yes, very much so. Standard works in black history rarely mention him. Much of this neglect has to do with the political biases of historians. Quite simply, Howard doesn’t fit their ideal of a civil rights leader. He was not an ascetic Gandhi-like figure, a union activist, or a clergyman, but rather a prosperous businessman who did not hesitate to display his wealth, bet on horses, stage ostentatious New Year’s Eve parties, lead big game hunts to Africa, and speed down the highway in his brand-new Cadillac. In contrast to Martin Luther King Jr., he carried guns and was ready to use them in self-defense “just in case.”

Another reason Howard has been forgotten relates to Howard himself. He never tried to pigeonhole himself as a “civil rights leader.” During the 1960s and 1970s, he increasingly focused on his medical practice and hobbies such as big-game hunting. In 1972, his life’s work culminated in the opening of the Friendship Medical Center on the South Side. It was the largest black privately owned medical facility in Chicago. While Howard supported numerous civil rights causes later in life, he preferred to do it from behind the scenes. Sometimes his ego also got in the way of working with other people.

Despite this, Howard was not a man to boast about his past civil rights accomplishments. He always had his eyes on a future project. In this respect, he was one of the premiere renaissance men in black history....


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