“We are not afraid. We are not fearful…Some of the rest of us may join him, but we will join him as courageous warriors and not as cringing cowards.”
TRM Howard, at the funeral for Reverend George Lee, who had been ambushed and murdered in the streets of Belzoni Mississippi.
From We Will Shoot Back.
It’s easy to look back on the Civil Rights Movement as a peaceful struggle. The trees and swamps of the South tell a different tale. As some advocated loudly for non-violence, they faced a wall of enemies that had been using terrorism for generations.
This was what motivated Martin Luther King to seek a concealed carry license; a license that he was quickly denied. When Rosa Parks and her husband began to organize to defend the Scottsboro 5, she recalled that there were so many guns on their table that there was no place to set the lemonade.
“Whenever they met they had someone posted as lookout, and someone always had a gun,” she recalled. “This was the first time I had ever seen so few men with so many guns.”
Then there was Dr. TRM Howard. One of the richest Black men in Mississippi, he owned a clinic, a construction company, a farm, a zoo, a public pool and an insurance company. He was also unapologetic about his arsenal of firearms and his absolute readiness to use them.
Born in Kentucky, Howard moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1942, to become a surgeon in the local hospital. Mound Bayou was founded by Blacks in 1887 and had grown to be an oasis for Southern Blacks because it was self-reliant and isolated from white communities. Perhaps because of the relative safety of Mound Bayou, Howard favored self-help and hard work over protesting Jim Crow and racism in the South.
When Emmett Till disappeared from the small town of Money Mississippi in 1955, reappearing three days later, mutilated, on the banks of the Talahatchie River, Howard took a stand. He would provide logistical support, security and housing for everyone involved in the private investigation of Emmett Till’s murder, including Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
His house became known as the Black Command Center for the movement in Mississippi. He offered protection and shelter for the growing leaders and dignitaries who were actively pursing justice for Emmett Till. This included journalists, activists and Black politicians.
Why Howard’s residence? Simple. It was safe. The KKK and Citizens Council had already shown a willingness to gun Black men down in the streets. Newspaper editorials called, not so subtly, for deaths of him and everyone else involved in the case. But Howard’s house was a well armed, disciplined fortress.
Till’s mother recalled in We Will Shoot Back, “The people in Mound Bayou didn’t tolerate any invasion of any kind. If you were there, you had to state your business. And if they didn’t agree with your reason for being there, they would ask you to leave, and that would be enforced.”
Visitors to Howard’s house had to pass through a checkpoint. Stationed around the house were armed guards, hired to protect Howard, his family and his visitors. There was so many guns in the house that one man remarked, he had trouble bringing his suitcases in because a “small arsenal” blocked the door.
At a time when Black men weren’t allowed to carry handguns on the highway (doing so required a special permit – one almost never awarded to Blacks.) Howard was never without his, cocked and laying across his lap. Whenever he was stopped by the state patrol – it happened extremely often – he stowed the gun in a secret compartment, which the police never discovered.
It was, however, acceptable for folks in Mississippi to travel with rifles. Many trucks had gun racks in their rear window. Howard took full advantage of that law, usually carrying four or five high-powered rifles with him. Although Howard owned a Thompson Submachine gun, I couldn’t find out whether it accompanied him in his Cadillac.
Besides his own guns and his army of security, we can’t forget that the town of Mound Bayou was formidable in its own right. When an angry mob of White supremacists threatened to attack Howard’s home, a humble farmer gave him a call. He said, “Don’t worry about a thing, Doc. Me and a gang of fellows will surround your house tonight. We all have guns.”
And when rumor spread that Howard’s wife Hellen had been assaulted by a gang of White men, 15 vehicles full of armed Black men answered the call.
Howard eventually moved from Mississippi. Despite the guards and the guns, the constant threat of violence proved too stressful for raising a family. They had two children at the time, and his wife, a California native, was physically worn out by the looming threat of violence.
He was never far from the movement. He returned to help journalist, Arrington High, escape from a mental institution, where he had been committed in order to silence him. The blueprint for his escape was developed by Howard and other leaders who would be known as the Negro Underground.
After settling in Chicago, he founded the multi million dollar Friendship Medical Center on the city’s South Side. He also became the mentor of a young Jesse Jackson.
While the theme of non violence will always be a hallmark of the freedom struggle in the South, we can’t forget men like TRM Howard, and towns line Mound Bayou. Without them their guns, and their willingness to stand up against terrorism, the movement could easily have been stamped out before it ever took flight.