“Before his quest for justice in the 1955 Emmett Till murder, Howard had led successful boycotts for equal rights and massive rallies in rural Mississippi. Medgar Evers, who went on to become a celebrated civil rights activist and martyr, got his introduction to both business and activism when Howard hired him as a salesman for the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of Howard’s many business ventures. Howard encouraged Evers to get involved with Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a civil rights group Howard had founded in 1951. (Howard would go on to play a similar mentoring role to the young Fannie Lou Hamer.) Till’s murder moved Howard to even greater efforts. Vowing ‘hell to pay in Mississippi,’ Howard gave over his home as a ‘command center’ for black journalists and witnesses including Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett’s mother). Moving to the center of the investigation, he doggedly pushed the theory that more people had been involved in the crime than the two white half brothers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant.
Sadly, as Howard had predicted in September 1955, the all-white jury ignored the overwhelming evidence and acquitted Milam and Bryant. Howard remarked bitterly that a white man was less likely to suffer a penalty for such a crime than for ‘killing deer out of season.’ But the acquittal was just the beginning of T.R.M. Howard’s fight. In the months after the trial he gave speeches across the country to crowds of thousands, demanding a federal investigation. Mississippi’s white press, which had once lauded Howard’s self-help activities, was outraged. The Jackson Daily News castigated Howard as ‘Public Enemy No. 1.’ So scathing was Howard’s criticism of the FBI’s failure to protect blacks that J. Edgar Hoover took the rare step of denouncing Howard in an open letter.”
More commentary from Professors Beito about Mr. Howard: “Why isn’t this larger-than-life figure better known? Howard, a classically American ‘man on the make,’ is hard to pigeonhole. His secular orientation and pro-business ideas made him an anomaly in a civil rights movement dominated by church leaders and left-liberal activists. Politically, his activities offer something to please and offend everybody: A staunch Republican and friend of President Dwight Eisenhower, Howard was also a committed feminist whose clinics offered safe abortions in the period before Roe v. Wade. But those who knew T.R.M. Howard (who died in 1976, at age 68) still speak about his energy, charisma and commitment. ‘The man was dynamic,’ recalled Mamie Till-Mobley. ‘I just thought he was the greatest in the world.’”
In whatever role he chose–civil rights leader, wealthy entrepreneur, or unconventional surgeon–Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard (1908-76) was always close to controversy. One of the leading renaissance men of twentieth century black history, Howard successfully organized a grassroots boycott against Jim Crow in the 1950s.