All Commentary
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power

Black Maverick is the only biography of Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard, whose remarkable life (1908–1976) combined entrepreneurship, medical practice, civil-rights activism against segregation, philanthropy, and high living. He was an irrepressible but flawed character, a man on the make who grew up under Jim Crow and took advantage of the few opportunities that system of repression left open. He then used his wealth and persuasive abilities to combat the system. Howard proved that freedom and capitalism were powerful weapons that could be used against bigotry.

For blacks living in Kentucky early in the twentieth century, life was mostly on the Hobbesian model—nasty, brutish, and short. Segregation limited the work available to blacks largely to exhausting physical labor. They lived under the constant threat of violence by the Ku Klux Klan against those who “got out of their place.” While growing up, Howard heard stories about lynchings and Klan raids against black towns; he also heard that the intended victims had sometimes bought guns and defended themselves. That was one of the lessons young Howard learned well: Later in life, he was usually armed.

One profession open to blacks was medicine, although they were expected to serve “their own kind” in the South. A well-known white doctor who knew Howard as a young man sensed his interest in medicine and decided to help him. The first step was to enroll the 16-year-old Howard in a junior college in Alabama run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. After graduating, Howard enrolled in another Adventist school, Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was the sole black student. His grades were only fair, but he distinguished himself in public speaking, winning a national oratory contest in 1930 before a mostly white audience.

The next step for Howard was the College of Medical Evangelists in Loma Linda, California, where he began medical studies in 1931. He also got involved in politics, civil-rights activism, and even journalism, writing columns for the leading black newspaper in the state. A frequent theme of his was the importance for blacks to enter business and teach their children the virtues of thrift and self-reliance. Howard found great inspiration in the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, and while he did not oppose FDR and his New Deal, he was skeptical that it would do anything to help blacks. He advised blacks to follow the example of the Japanese in California and succeed on their own without looking to politics for assistance.

After receiving his medical degree Howard first went to a decaying public hospital in St. Louis, where he developed an excellent reputation as a surgeon. His big break came in 1941, when he was invited to become chief surgeon at a black hospital being built in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, by a fraternal organization. Under Howard’s direction, the hospital grew and provided quality medical care to its members. Howard’s self-help philosophy dovetailed with that of the fraternal order. Soon it was selling insurance to members; for an annual premium of only $8.40, they were entitled to up to 31 days of hospital care. The response among poor blacks in the area was overwhelming. They had excellent medical insurance long before such insurance became common, and without any government involvement.

Howard shrewdly invested much of his salary in area businesses and soon was one of the wealthiest black men in the South. In the years to come, he used some of that wealth to aid the fight against segregation. In the early 1950s, for example, he was instrumental in a boycott of filling stations that refused to allow black customers to use the restrooms. That boycott caused the major national gasoline companies to change policies and insist that their franchisees no longer discriminate. They didn’t want the bad publicity and loss of customers. Howard understood that under capitalism, profits usually trump prejudices.

After the infamous murder of a black teenager, Emmett Till, in 1955, Howard threw resources into an attempt to bring Till’s killers to justice. Unfortunately, he couldn’t overcome the segregationist-dominated legal system, and the defendants, guilty beyond doubt, went free.

The Beitos have written a timely and enlightening book. Howard was a fascinating man, and his belief that free enterprise offers poor people (of all races) the path to success needs to be trumpeted as loudly as ever. America today is torn by counterproductive governmental “affirmative action” policies such as quotas for “minority-owned” contractors and racial preferences in college admissions. The book’s subtext is that what government needs to do to help poor people and minorities is to get out of their way.