By CHERYL McCULLERS
Former Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, who died in a plane crash on April 3, 1996, is the subject of a new book by New York Times reporter Steven A. Holmes. On Oct. 11, Mr. Holmes discussed Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life (left) as part of the "Books and Beyond" lecture series sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book.
Mr. Holmes, who is the chief race relations reporter for the Times, was inspired to write his book on Brown because of the cross-cultural outpouring after his death. "Brown's death evoked the kind of response normally reserved for heads of state or icons of pop culture," said Mr. Holmes. It was his charge to write a book not solely centered on Ron Brown, uncommon man, but also "the forces, events, the people that shaped him and propelled him on to excellence."
Ron Brown's great-grandfather and grandfather are responsible for pulling their family out of a low social and economic class. In 1897 the Browns built their house in Steelton, Pa., complete with seven rooms, three porches and a large hall; the backyard stabled horses. Their home was in a predominantly German community.
Ron Brown's father, William Brown, left Pennsylvania to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1940 and married Gloria Osborne. After graduating, William Brown became the first African American to be employed in a professional position at the Federal Housing and Home Financing Administration, the precursor agency to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. His job transferred him in 1947 from Boston to New York City. After six months in the position, William Brown changed careers and was hired as manager for the Hotel Theresa in Harlem.
Ronald Harmon Brown was born on Aug. 1, 1941. Doting and encouragement would come not just from loving family members but also from the African American intellectuals and celebrities that frequented the hotel. It was this special treatment from notable people that Holmes believes contributed to Ron Brown's great sense of self.
Brown's evenings were spent among the important African American personalities of the time, such as Josephine Baker, Joe Louis and Dinah Washington. His early school days were spent at Hunter College Elementary School, a predominantly white public school on Manhattan's East Side. He subsequently attended high school at White Plains High School and the Rhodes School in Manhattan. Both schools were populated by the children of middle-class African Americans.
In 1962 Brown graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, a mostly white institution. His failing grades as a pre-med student placed him on academic probation. He rebounded by changing his major to political science. After college, he served in the Army from 1962 to 1967, commanding several units in the United States, Germany and South Korea. Mr. Holmes remarked, "His was a journey of African Americans coming from outside the system moving inside the system."
Eager to rejoin civilian life, Brown was discharged from the Army in 1967. He reenrolled at St. John's Law School and began a short-lived career as a social worker. His mother arranged an interview for him with the deputy director of the National Urban League, Mahlon Puryear. Brown seized the opportunity for employment with the National Urban League.
He began his career with the National Urban League in 1968 as a job developer-trainee adviser. While working with the Urban League, Brown continued his studies at St. John's University Law School. He graduated in 1970 and passed the bar in 1971.
Brown was promoted often by the National Urban League and by 1976 held the position of deputy executive director for programs and governmental affairs. He served the National Urban League for 11 years. Mr. Holmes remarked, "The Urban League played a large role in the development of Ron Brown." Memos between Brown and Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League (1972-1981), provided insight to Brown's business dealings and ambition.
The National Urban League Papers are housed in the Library's Manuscript Division. Mr. Holmes found the papers a "treasure trove." "I don't think I would have been able to write the book as well without access to the papers of the National Urban League here at the Library."
Brown was named director of the National Urban League's Washington office in 1973. By the mid 1970s, he had become a key player in Washington politics. He left the National Urban League in 1979 to work for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who sought the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. As Kennedy's deputy campaign manager, Brown devised the strategy to gain the black vote.
His political career continued to gain steam at the law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow. The firm was renowned for its influence on Capitol Hill and ability to raise funds. Brown was hired in 1981 as a lawyer and a lobbyist. In this position, he gained more influence and formed ties with prominent leaders within the Democratic Party. Though advisers told him the political climate within the party had soured toward African Americans, in 1988 he announced his candidacy for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Holmes spoke of the "whispering campaign" started by members of the Democratic National Committee opposed to Brown's running for chairman. Brown devised the strategy to meet discreetly with the leaders of the opposition and obtain their confidence. The strategy worked and Brown was elected chairman in 1989. "He was a natural born leader," said Mr. Holmes.
Brown quickly asserted his role as chairman of the Democratic National Committee by becoming active in the search for a democratic presidential nominee. Mr. Holmes maintains that the political finesse of Brown and the Democratic National Committee staff were partly responsible for Bill Clinton's election in 1992.
During his lifetime, Ron Brown broke many barriers. He was the first African American to serve as secretary of commerce and the first black chairman of a national political party. Patton, Boggs & Blow recruited Brown, making him their first African American partner. He was the first African American member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
Speculations as to the circumstances surrounding the plane crash that caused Brown's death include from cover-ups to foul play. Mr. Holmes addresses the various theories in his book and also gives voice to those who doubt the conspiracy theories.
Ms. McCullers is on a detail to the Public Affairs Office.