Murray native played key role in Emmett Till trial, civil rights movement
Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard isn’t a name that’s included in every history book, but the Murray native was on the frontlines seeking justice and equality during the civil rights movement. The western Kentucky man would play a key role in the aftermath of the lynching of Emmett Till, telling countless people about the corruption and racism rampant in the South at the time.
Husband-and-wife duo David Beito, a professor at the University of Alabama, and Linda Royster Beito, an associate Professor from Stillman University in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, wrote Black Maverick, a biography of T.R.M. Howard. David Beito said Howard was unique because he used a different platform.
“(He) was a son of Murray. That is important to recognize,” Beito said. “He did not define himself as a civil rights leader, he was everything. He was always moving onto the next project whether it was his medical practice, safaris to Africa, or the various other causes he was involved in. He was always looking ahead and not dwelling on past accomplishments.”
Howard was born March 4, 1908, in Murray to a tobacco farmer and a cook. He was named after Theodore Roosevelt, who was president at the time of his birth. As an adult, he adopted his middle name from the white doctor his mother worked for, Will Mason, with whom he had a close relationship. The doctor supported Howard financially, enabling him to go to medical school.
Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, Howard never served as a minister, instead plying his trade in medicine. Beito said Howard was very ambitious and liked to explore different avenues of public service. He would study at three adventist colleges in his lifetime, including the all-black Oak Wood College in Huntsville, Alabama, and Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he took part in oratorical and debate contests.
“Howard was a man who could put on a show,” Beito said. “He came from Black business and Black medicine. He was all of these things. A successful businessman, he provided social services for people. He is hard to summarize but he was a man of accomplishment.”
In 1942, Howard and his wife, Helen Boyd, moved to the predominantly black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he quickly rose through the ranks in Mound Bayou’s hospital, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor. He would eventually become chief surgeon before leaving his medical practice temporarily in 1951 to pursue demonstrations during the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement was still in its infancy at the time, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still more than a decade away. The desegregation of schools and public facilities was just beginning, but the push back against the movement was gaining momentum as well. This is the stage that Howard found himself on in 1955, when the son of one of his patients was found dead in Money, Mississippi, less than 50 miles from his home.
Emmett Till, who was considered to be a lively, joke loving and energetic teen, had been visiting his uncle on August 24, 1955, when he went to a meat market. There he supposedly flirted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working as a cashier at the grocery store. Bryant had become irritated and eventually went for a gun to scare Till off. Till and his friends raced off in a car to avoid harm. Four days later, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home by Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother and taken to a seed barn, according to an eyewitness account by Willie Reed. There he was beaten, tortured and eventually shot to death.
Initially, Till was reported missing and a manhunt ensued to find him. His body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River by two fishermen, his body so decomposed that his uncle could only identify him by a ring he wore. When Howard got news of Till’s death, he was about to become the president of the National Medical Association.
Till’s death caused an uproar across the country. Till’s mother, Mamie, testified against her son’s killers before a jury of all white men. The pair would be acquitted of their charges quickly. A juror later said, "We wouldn't have taken so long if we hadn't stopped to drink pop." According to David Beito, Mamie Till-Mobley stayed at Howard’s house during the trial and Howard was very proactive in finding evidence and talking to witnesses.
Even though justice was not served for Till and his family, the trial galvanized the civil rights movement. Howard went on a national speaking tour to tell the country about the corruption he had seen during the trial.
Howard gave a speech in March 1956 at Madison Square Garden. He spoke about Till’s murder and the corruption in Mississippi and the South. Till asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they were born in the South.
“The reason you are in New York is because you were running away from the conditions of the South,” Howard said. “The pitiful part about it is that you have forgotten about those conditions in the South and you are not doing anything about the conditions right here in New York City. I believe there is something our government can do.”
The media played a crucial role during Till’s murder trial, according to David Beito. His book, Black Maverick, recounts there were even reporters from Europe. The professor said Howard wanted the case to be reopened because witnesses and evidence had been hidden away by the local sheriff and other officials. He also argued with then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to reopen the case.
Howard would go on to have a very successful medical practice in Chicago, where he died in May 1976 at age 68, but his legacy would stretch far past his death.
There is a historical marker dedicated to Howard in Mound Bayou that’s a part of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, dedicated to him in 2012.
A new series Women of the Movement depicts the events of Till’s murder and the role his mother Mamie Till played leading up to the trial. Howard is portrayed by actor Alex Désert. The series aired on ABC in January and is available for streaming on Hulu.
The Murray man proved to be a zelig-like figure, connected with all manner of important civil rights historymakers. In addition to his role in the Till trial, he mentored civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Medgar Evers.
A freshly married Evers came into the employ of Howard in 1951 to work at Magnolia Mutual as an insurance salesman. It was Howard who encouraged Evers to talk about civil rights as well as insurance with Delta farmers. Evers’ hiring as the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi came with Howard’s recommendation. The young organizer then moved on to Jackson, Mississippi, where he organized voter-registration efforts and economic boycotts and investigated crimes against Black people until his assassination in June 1963.
At Evers’ funeral, Howard gave a eulogy: “His contact with the plantation homes and people in the Mississippi Delta gave him a burning desire to set his people free.”
In 1972, Howard helped Mississippi native Reverend Jesse Jackson create People United to Save (Later Serve) Humanity. PUSH – now known as the Rainbow PUSH Coalition – is a self-help organization advocating civil and human rights. Jackson and Howard had disagreements at times over the right way to do things, but Jackson considered Howard a mentor. After Howard passed away on May 1, 1976, at the age of 68, Jackson officiated his funeral.