T.R.M. Howard: Civil Rights Rabble-Rouser, Abortion Provider

T.R.M. Howard: Civil Rights Rabble-Rouser, Abortion Provider

This is not a famous picture, but it should be. Forty years ago, the March 22, 1973 issue of Jet magazine featured Dr. T.R.M. Howard and a staffer attending a prostrate female patient on its cover, all under a yellow headline: “Legal Abortion: Is it Genocide or Blessing in Disguise?” This remarkable image reportedly depicts preparations for one of the first legal abortions in Illinois (though it could also have been staged).

Just two months after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision and a week after Illinois OKed the procedure on its soil, Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason (or T.R.M.) Howard began performing legal abortions at his Friendship Medical Center in Chicago. According to the accompanying feature story, black and white women alike jammed the clinic’s waiting room and phone lines. Outside, Jesse Jackson—once a protégée of Howard’s—picketed and called abortion black genocide.

In the wake of polarizing national debates about abortion, it’s difficult to imagine that a national magazine would feature an abortion procedure on its cover. And with clinic bombings, harassment, and the assassinations of abortion providers, it is equally hard to imagine many abortion providers would opt for this level of exposure.

But images have long been the currency of both the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. In 1973, Ms. magazine published the searing image of the naked, kneeling body of twenty-eight-year-old Gerri Santoro, who died from a self-induced abortion in a Norwich, Connecticut hotel room in 1964. The Silent Scream, a 1984 film partly funded by the National Right to Life Committee, claimed to show a fetus writhing in pain during an abortion and became a staple in the arsenal of anti-abortion visual arguments. Earlier this decade, billboards showing winsome black children towered over streets in Atlanta and New York, blaring messages such as, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” With ever more advanced ultrasound technology, pictures of fetuses are now stock images in the fight to keep abortion legal and accessible; in many states, ultrasounds are required viewing in pre-abortion counseling blatantly designed to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate know that images are worth far more than the proverbial thousand words. The 1973 Jet cover image, in particular, operates on multiple registers. First, we can’t underestimate the impact of the prime real estate given to this image. Jet magazine has circulated millions of copies and occupied a place of pride in black homes, barbershops, and newsstands since its founding in 1951.

Nor can we, in our current climate, underestimate the power of showing a black abortion provider. When abortion opponents point fingers at what they call a racist abortion industry targeting communities of color, the providers they imagine are white. The most notable exception is not an heartening or representative one: Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia provider who was found guilty of three counts of murder on Monday. (Though multiple parties expressed concern about his methods, his facility’s sanitary conditions, and its higher-than-usual complication rates, his clinic continually used untrained staff, performed abortions after legal limits, and generally functioned as a last-resort house of horrors for poor women with advanced pregnancies.)

Jet also published brief blurbs about black women’s abortion-related deaths and the trials of black health-care providers accused of performing illegal abortions before 1973. The December 16, 1954 issue’s medical news column mentioned legal action against Los Angeles chiropractor Edmund George Peters, who had previously served a six-month sentence on the county road camp for an abortion charge, and Dr. Henry Landry, an Alexandria, Virginia physician suspected in an abortion-related fatality. (Howard himself was brought up on multiple charges but not convicted.)

But the above photograph wordlessly counters the predominant imagery of pre-Roe abortions. This is not the makeshift and blood-spattered back-alley room in a shady neighborhood. Howard appears in a sparkling white lab coat, and his helper is decked out in scrubs and a hairnet. They seem the picture of medical efficiency and professionalism, not untrained shysters. The image captures a moment of social, legal, and medical transition: the movement of abortion from the often-unsafe backrooms to the regulated clinic.

The Jet cover and article also mark Howard’s own transition into legal provision of abortion care, but the magazine doesn’t directly acknowledge Howard’s long history of providing illegal but safe abortions pre-Roe. Before Heather Booth co-founded the Chicago clandestine abortion service commonly known as Jane in the late 1960s, she helped a friend seek an abortion through a group that provided medical services to civil rights activists; they referred the young woman to a doctor who was almost certainly Howard. When Howard parted ways with Jane, he joined forces with the Clergy Consultation Service, a referral service through which he performed hundreds, maybe thousands, of abortions.

Howard is one of the most significant civil rights leaders to fly under the history radar—though his story is well-documented in Black Maverick, a biography by husband-and-wife team David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito. As an insurance salesman in Mississippi, Howard gave young (future civil rights activist) Medgar Evers his first job. In 1951, he founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a civil rights organization that called for economic boycotts before the Montgomery bus boycotts. He packed civil rights rallies with his fiery rhetoric, and some anointed him a civil rights leader to watch. The Klan watched him, too, especially as he led efforts to uncover the truth behind the murder of fourteen-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till; he enraged J. Edgar Hoover with his full-throated condemnation of a U.S. government that half-heartedly investigated Deep South violence—when it deigned to investigate at all. And, finally, Howard led the segregated, black National Medical Association when the group began clamoring for hospital integration.

Yet Howard didn’t just belong to the civil rights movement. Like black physicians and midwives before him, he belonged also to the abortion rights movement. In his inimitable and controversial way, Howard pointed out in Jet that abortion could be safe, legal, and even convenient; he proposed the “lunch hour abortion”—in which a woman could have a complications-free procedure and return to her desk in a jiffy. He countered black militants’ charges that abortion is “black genocide” with a broader social critique: “You see, genocide takes many forms. A malnourished body caused by a lack of food is genocide. A slum apartment infested with rats and poison paint peeling is genocide. Bad school which plunge [sic] blacks into a dismal economic plight is genocide.”

It seems that nobody likes an inveterate and unapologetic boundary crosser. Howard, who died in 1976, isn’t in the canon of civil rights leadership, probably because he differed with movement heroes such as Thurgood Marshall, was a notorious philanderer—and provided abortions (and unapologetically made money from them). Yet neither is he remembered in the standard pro-choice narratives.

Dr. T.R.M. Howard was many things—entrepreneur, physician, and a civil rights rabble-rouser. For the pro-choice activist, he is a loud reminder that all abortion activism did not emerge from a mainly white mainstream feminism. For black communities, often labeled as staunchly anti-choice, Howard’s history points to how central African Americans have always been to the fight to maintain reproductive freedom. For a civil rights movement that has focused on “big men” and still far too few women, Howard’s career demonstrates how civil rights and women’s rights can and did converge.

Cynthia R. Greenlee is a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University and lives in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaGreenlee.