Charles P. Howard Sr. was a gifted attorney who never lost a capital trial during his career as an outspoken civil rights attorney in Iowa.
Born in 1890 in Des Moines, Iowa, Howard graduated from the Fort Des Moines Army officer-candidate school in 1917 as a second lieutenant and served with the 92nd Division, 366th Infantry in World War I France in 1918.
After graduating from Drake University law school in 1922, he joined the Iowa Bar Association and soon became chairman of the Iowa Negro Bar Association. In 1925, he helped found the National Negro Bar Association, later renamed the National Bar Association, which was organized in part to protest the American Bar Association’s refusal to admit black lawyers.
Although the ABA later admitted African Americans, Howard and other NBA founders saw a continuing need for an organization to represent the interests of minority attorneys.
While practicing in Des Moines, Howard stretched his writing muscles as an Iowa Bystander columnist in the 1920s and 1930s, and he later published the Iowa Observer newspaper in 1939 with his three sons. The African-American neighborhood newspaper expanded in the 1940s into several weekly publications in Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In the 1950s, he headed the Howard News Syndicate, which served 34 newspapers in the United States and abroad.
In 1948, he keynoted the Progressive Party National Convention which pursued an aggressive antidiscrimination campaign. He also befriended controversial entertainer Paul Robeson. As Howard’s popularity increased in civil rights circles, he also voiced protests against increased government surveillance, investigations, and trials of alleged Communist Party members, civil rights leaders, and peace activists. In 1948 he worked with Robeson, W. E. B. DuBois, and publisher Charlotta Bass to establish a committee to fight Jim Crow segregation in the Panama Canal Zone.
All of his work with controversial issues soon led Howard to be elected as a U.S. delegate to the World Peace Conference in Warsaw, Poland in 1950s. Following the Warsaw conference, he accepted Joseph Stalin’s invitation to visit the Soviet Union.
However, that trip is perhaps the key reason Howard returned to Iowa the target of intense criticism and was disbarred in 1951. He served as the National Negro Press correspondent at the United Nations until his death, but remains regarded by many as Iowa’s most colorful journalist of all time.