‘While historians have properly acknowledged the contributions of clergymen and grassroots activists” to the civil-rights movement, write David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “they have too often neglected those made by entrepreneurs and black professionals.” The Beitos’ new book — Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power – begins to set the record straight. David is a professor at the University of Alabama and Linda is an associate professor at Stillman College. David recently took questions from NRO’s John J. Miller.
JOHN J. MILLER: Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was a black Republican civil-rights leader — was he also in any meaningful sense a conservative?
DAVID T. BEITO: Howard was highly pragmatic but he clearly had many conservative beliefs. While he was not afraid to confront segregation head-on, he rejected socialism, communism, and governmental utopian schemes. The civil-rights organization he headed, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), prohibited Communists from joining, and he once said that he wished that “one bomb could be fashioned that would blow every Communist in America right back to Russia where they belong.” Pointing to the failure of the Soviet Union to exploit civil-rights grievances in the United States, he said that blacks were “not interested in any ‘Isms’ but Americanism.” After he joined the Republican party in 1956, someone asked him how he could associate with “people like Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.” Howard’s answer was priceless: “I don’t like to but I will,” he said. “I’d far rather side with McCarthy who thinks there’s a Communist under every bed, than with [Democratic] Senator Eastland who thinks there should be a Negro dangling from every rope.”
Despite these conservative views, Howard had a distinct libertarian streak on social issues, although his arguments were typically pragmatic. He supported the legalization of prostitution and the right of women to have abortions.
MILLER: How were Howard’s views on civil rights and economics different from those embraced by today’s self-proclaimed civil-rights leaders?
BEITO: Howard’s eyes never strayed from the need to build a strong economic foundation through thrift and business ownership. He was a rare example of a leading civil-rights leader who was first and foremost a successful entrepreneur. During the 1940s and 1950s, he also led one of the leading mutual-aid organizations in Mississippi, which provided low-cost and high-quality hospitalization for blacks. Howard’s RCNL combined support for voting rights with an emphasis on the need for ordinary blacks to save and invest.
Howard always believed that it was essential for blacks to go into business for themselves. He pushed these goals while he served as chair of the board of directors of the National Negro Business League. His business enterprises included an insurance company, a home-construction firm, and a plantation of more than one thousand acres. He also built the first swimming pool (Olympic-sized) for blacks in Mississippi and even opened a small zoo. As the founder and head of one the largest black hospitals in Mississippi, he often gave his patients not only medical care but seed and tips on the latest business and agricultural techniques.
MILLER: Was Howard a disciple of Booker T. Washington?
BEITO: Very much so. He praised Washington as a “towering intellectual genius” and recommended a credo of “talking about Negro business, singing Negro business, preaching Negro business, spending our money with Negro business.” Like Washington, Howard urged emulation of immigrant groups, such as Japanese Americans, who had learned the value of “getting together and pulling together,” and who, despite intense discrimination, had developed a booming business sector and philanthropic institutions such as hospitals.
Also like Washington, Howard conceded that some of the failings of black businesses were self-inflicted. He said that he had stopped using one of the “most fashionable” local black-owned barbershops because the “barber insisted on clipping one minute and talking five minutes. We are living in an age of speed and the Negro barber must realize this fact.” Howard called on blacks to make the most of existing conditions and recognize that not every boy was “born to be a preacher, lawyer, or doctor.” He had no patience for those who discounted menial jobs as demeaning instead of giving them proper due. As “long as the American people wear shoes,” he declared, “somebody is going to have to shine them. . . . The Negro boy who shines shoes should shine them so well that every body in the community would want him to shine their shoes.”