By: David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito
Reviewed by: Nancy Wilstach
University of Illinois Press, 2009
Talk about the idol with feet of clay: Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard’s character flaws were in proportion to his virtues. The Beitos have painted their portrait of this mesmerizing man without trying to gloss over his flaws.
Howard founded a ground-breaking Mississippi civil rights organization in the 1950s, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, and delved unhesitatingly into the investigation of the kidnapping and lynching of Emmitt Till, risking his own safety to do so.
A study in conflicts, Howard was a man who fit neatly into no pigeonholes. The Beitos help the readers understand that the abortionist and womanizer can live inside the same body as the accomplished surgeon and dedicated civil rights mentor.
Howard’s story is a fascinating one that many who consider themselves steeped in civil rights lore may still have missed. He came from a poor rural Kentucky home, parlayed a Seventh Day Adventist faith and the support of a white physician into a medical education and the presidency of the nation’s black medical association. He rose to heights of wealth and splendor unheard of for a black man of his time.
By 1956 he was one of the wealthiest blacks in Mississippi, exemplifying W.E.B. DuBois’ “the talented tenth.” When, partly to save his life and partly to widen his theatre of operations, Howard moved on to Chicago, his ambition, hubris, and persona grew to fit the stage. Howard played host to Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson at parties where guest lists read like a Jet Magazine social register. Howard never hesitated to match wits with some of the most ardent white segregationists in the twentieth century, from Mississippi’s fire-breathing senator Theodore G. Bilbo to infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as some of its most iconic black figures—Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins, for example.
Again defying classification, Howard opposed integration at various levels of vehemence—not because he agreed with white segregationists, but because he did not want to see blacks surrender economic dominance of their own communities. He had a boot-straps approach to life and believed that blacks should depend on one another and not the largesse of whites. To this end, he founded, not only his clean and inviting Chicago clinic, but a black-owned bank and an insurance company. Under his leadership, the RCNL fought a bumper-sticker battle against service stations with restrooms reserved for whites only. Some 20,000 of the stickers read: “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom.”
Alas, Howard also fathered a number of offspring with women other than his wife of more than forty years, and after his death, his empire crumbled, leaving nothing for his children and little for his widow, and his grave lay unmarked for several years.
The Beitos’ capturing on paper the essence of this elusive personality in such a sympathetic manner is a masterful feat and well worth reading. Feb 2010
Nancy Wilstach is a retired newspaper reporter.