The civil rights crusader

By Gus Bode

John Howie was in the fight of his life.

Howie was an aspiring preacher gunning for the Mississippi Golden Gloves championship. A win could have made his dreams of going professional come true. That win never came for Howie, but he did not get knocked out.

He kept standing up.

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That is when he stopped fighting with his fists and started fighting with his words, said his son, Stephen Howie.

Stephen Howie recounted stories of his late father’s fight for civil rights during the 1950s Thursday. John Howie, a former philosophy professor of 31 years at SIUC, died Monday in Carbondale at 78 years old, but his son Stephen Howie and those close to him agreed that the tales of his courage would live on.

“He believed in fairness in everything and was a man with strong principles,” Stephen Howie said. “At that time in South Carolina, it was very brave for a white man to fight for integration.”

John Howie’s tale of courage began when he moved from Mississippi to Bluffton, S.C., in 1954 after he hung up his gloves and picked up his Bible. At the time, Bluffton was divided by the color line and civil rights was just an idea.

That was until John Howie brought his fighting spirit to the pulpit as the preacher of a Methodist church, Stephen Howie said.

Stephen Howie recalled a story from his book that he wrote about his father, “The Bluffton Charge: One Preacher’s Fight for Civil Rights,” as a defining moment in his father’s life.

He said John Howie protested a political convention, rallying for civil rights, and stood up for the cause with two of his friends amid jeers and threats.

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After his all-white congregation heard of his relationships with black people, they put him on what Stephen Howie described as a trial. The congregation questioned him about being a member of the NAACP and wanted to know his motivations.

“People were being killed back then for standing up for civil rights, so that congregation could have turned on him right then,” Stephen Howie said.

Stephen Howie said the incident disillusioned his father about organized religion, so he and his family signed a letter stating they were leaving the Methodist church.

After Howie’s family left the church, he moved to Boston in 1957 where he earned his degree in philosophy at Boston University from Harold DeWolf, the instructor for Martin Luther King Jr.

The will to fight for equality continued in his career in higher education, Stephen Howie said.

When John Howie was lecturer at Randolph-Macon University in Virginia, he challenged the college’s application process after discovering they required photographs.

“He found out that if you were turning in an application and you were black, you probably weren’t making it in,” Stephen Howie said.

His challenge to the university led to him being released the next academic year.

Once John Howie arrived at SIUC, his son said he found a place he loved. But that did not stop him from fighting for his principles.

David Clarke, a former philosophy professor who came to SIUC with John Howie in 1966, said John Howie played an active role in the Vietnam War protests on campus.

“He had a very strong sense of social justice that inclined him to be against the Vietnamese Center on campus,” Clarke said. “The center promoted the war, and he opposed the war.”

John Howie spent 31 years at SIUC where his son said he made great connections with the students. Stephen Howie said he remembers the shaggy-haired graduate students of the ’70s who would come to the house to play pool, talk with his father about social issues and seek advice.

Stephen Howie said that connection remained late into his father’s career, as he got to witness first-hand the special bond he had with students when he taught at SIUC alongside his father.

“I was hired at SIU to lecture in English, and my fondest memories were being able to walk the hallways with him,” Stephen Howie said. “It was clear the students adored him.”

At the end of his career, John Howie reconnected with the Bluffton community by giving a sermon at his old Methodist church. Stephen Howie said religion played an important role in his father’s life, and his biggest disappointment was the failure of the church to move on social issues.

John Howie continued to fight late in his life in the field of bioethics and for a person’s right to die, Stephen Howie said.

Just like 60 years ago when John Howie stayed standing in the middle of the boxing ring, Stephen Howie said his father never got knocked out.

“His fight for moral justice carried through for his whole life,” Stephen Howie said. “He always stood up and never backed down for anything, no matter what.”

Jeff Engelhardt can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 268 or [email protected]

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