Brown, Elaine 1943–
Elaine Brown 1943–
Political activist author
Elaine Brown rose from an obscure ghetto existence to run one of the most powerful and notorious black militant organizations in the United States—the Black Panther Party. So powerful was the influence of the Black Panthers among black communities that it prompted J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI to label it “the single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States” in 1968. Brown assumed power from Huey Newton, founder and minister of defense, in 1974, when Newton jumped bail on a murder charge and left the country, appointing Brown as his successor. Brown maintained control until 1977, when Newton returned from his self-imposed exile in Cuba to face the murder charges of which he was later acquitted.
Brown’s leadership was met with hostility by the predominantly male rank-and-file membership, many of whom had lost sight of the party’s original objectives. Although faced with a weakened organization, serious internal strife, and police and FBI harassment, Brown continued to develop and expand services to the community, such as the free-breakfast program, free legal and medical clinics, and the Oakland Community Learning Center, which was recognized by the city of Oakland for academic excellence. In her autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Brown chronicles the evolution and growth of the Black Panther Party, its philosophies, and her own growing social consciousness. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that “Brown’s erudite and considered narration makes for a memoir that is as inspiring as it is harrowing.”
Brown was born on March 2, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Dorothy Brown, who supported her daughter by doing “piece-work” in a dress factory. Brown’s father, Dr. Horace Scott, a prominent member of Philadelphia’s black middle class, never publicly acknowledged his daughter. Scott and his legal wife adopted a daughter shortly after Brown was born because they could not have children of their own. Although Brown attempted to establish a relationship with her father, his denial of her legal birthright remained a stumbling block that would never be overcome.
Brown had few pleasant memories of her childhood. In A Taste of Power, she describes the dismal surroundings of their home on York Street in Philadelphia: “Its darkness and its smells of industrial dirt and poverty permeated and overwhelmed everything. There were always piles of trash and garbage in the street that never moved except by the
Born March 2, 1943, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Dorothy Brown; children: Ericka Suzanne Brown. Education: Attended Temple University, 1961.
Political activist Joined Black Panther Party, 1967; became Deputy Minister of Information, early 1970s; chairperson and minister of defense, 1974-77. California Democratic convention, delegate, 1976; lobbied for job-creating projects in Oakland, CA. Author of A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Pantheon, 1992.
force of wind…. Cavernous sewage drains on the street corner spit forth their stench.”
Despite the poverty and squalor that surrounded them, Brown’s mother sought to give her daughter every advantage possible. Feeling that her daughter deserved a better education than the local public school could provide, Ms. Brown enrolled her daughter in an experimental school for exceptional children. Undaunted by the four-year waiting list, the elder Brown campaigned tirelessly to get her daughter accepted immediately, sending letters to the school board, attending every school board meeting, and soliciting the support of prominent black leaders in the community. Finally, Brown was enrolled in kindergarten at the Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice.
The elder Brown saw to it that her daughter made friends with all of the influential students in her class, especially the Jewish children. The younger Brown spent many hours after school with her rich white friends, and grew to believe that some day she, too, would be entitled to all that they had. She says of this time in her life, “I really was not like the other colored girls. My mother had told me that. White people were telling me that. I did not belong on York Street. I belonged in their world. I had not only learned to talk white and act white, [but] I could do white things.” Brown could play classical piano by the time she was six and took private piano lessons for several years. She took ballet lessons at the Sydney School of Dance and went on theater excursions with her mother to the Academy of Music. Brown began to believe she was white, because so much of her life was spent in the white man’s world.
In September of 1957 Brown entered the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls on the strength of her academic record and intelligence. In 1961 Brown began taking classes at Temple University in North Philadelphia, but she left in the middle of her second semester. She returned to her mother’s house and went to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company, where she became the first black service representative hired by the company. In 1965, Brown left North Philadelphia for Los Angeles, California. “What had really been so terrible in Philadelphia?,” she asks in A Taste of Power. “It’s true there had been the specifics of poverty. I had survived the poverty, however, relatively unscathed, having lived in my maternal cocoon. I had never really been hungry or ill clothed or without a roof over my head. I had been exposed to some of life’s finer offerings.”
With only three hundred dollars in her pocket, Brown experienced the reality of being on her own for the first time in her life. When her money ran out, she took a job as a cocktail waitress at the Pink Pussycat club, said to be the hottest nightclub in West Hollywood. There she became acquainted with Jay Kennedy, an accomplished writer, a social activist, and a member of the Communist party. They became friends and lovers. Kennedy subscribed to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent tactics and helped to organize the March on Washington. It was Kennedy who first influenced the development of Brown’s social conscience in a way that ultimately led to the Black Panther Party.
Soon, Brown began to immerse herself in the black power structure. She became involved in the Black Congress, a conglomeration of black organizations in the Los Angeles area whose aim it was to serve the needs of black people. She worked for the Black Congress newspaper, Harambee, Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together.” Brown soon learned that pulling together was mens’ work, and that women were supposed to be helpers and supporters. In 1967, at a rally in San Diego, Brown and a friend got into line to eat before all of the men were served. But the women did not know about the unspoken code that defined relations between the men, called the Brothers, and the women, or the Sisters. They were surprised to be told that “Sisters did not challenge Brothers. Sisters stood behind their black men, supported their men, and respected them.” Furthermore, it was not only “unsisterly” to want to eat with their black Brothers, but it was a punishable offense, she remembers in her autobiography.
By 1967, Brown had become acquainted with the Black Panther Party, a black militant political organization founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the party was created to protect black communities from escalating police violence and brutality. But the Panthers dropped “Self-Defense” from their name as the party took on Marxist-Communist overtones that sanctioned violent revolution to bring about societal change. In April of 1968, Brown joined the Southern California chapter of the party and agreed to live by the Black Panther code, which required that members attend regular political education classes, read certain books, follow intraparty disciplinary rules to the letter, use firearms, and memorize the ten-point party platform and program.
The Black Panthers program combined revolutionary rhetoric, violent actions in the name of self-defense, and a strong commitment to building and strengthening black communities. Though much of their work was positive—they developed innovative programs for community policing, education, and assisting the poor—, they were primarily known in the white community for their violence. Their support of the use of firearms both for self-defense and in retaliation for oppressive action against poor blacks led to embittered battles between the police and the Panthers, and attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. By the early 1970s, many of the party’s strongest leaders were either in prison or had been killed in police battles.
During this tumultuous time, Brown began moving up the ranks within the party. In 1974, with the expulsion of cofounder Bobby Seale, Brown was named chairman of the Black Panther Party, which was ravaged by the expulsion of many loyal members by Huey Newton. Brown attributed the Party’s troubles to the “paranoid mind of Huey [Newton], which cocaine and circumstances seemed to be destroying.” During her first month as chairman, Brown began to question her commitment to the party. She writes of this time, “Faith was all there was. If I did not believe in the ultimate lightness of our goals and our party, then what we did, what Huey was doing, what he was, what I was, was horrible. If the party had no humane or lasting value, that would nullify the loss of so many precious lives.” With her entire life tied to the party, Brown tried desperately to keep faith.
Newton was arrested in 1974 for the murder of a seventeen-year-old black prostitute. The black community rose up against him and, while he was out on bond, Newton sought to escape criminal prosecution by fleeing to Cuba. Shortly after leaving the country, Newton appointed Brown the minister of defense for the Black Panther Party. Brown writes in A Taste for Power: “A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people…. I knew I had to muster something mighty to manage the Black Panther Party.”
Brown surrounded herself with strong leaders whose loyalty to Newton and the Black Panther Party was unquestioned. Under her leadership, Sisters began taking on more official roles with greater responsibility. While this did not sit well with many of the male members, Brown gave them little room to disagree. During Brown’s tenure as party chief, the Black Panthers also began to seek power through legitimate political channels. One of the party’s objectives was to elect a black mayor in the city of Oakland. After registering 90,000 black Democrats to vote, they secured the endorsement of California Governor Jerry Brown for Black Panther candidate Lionel Wilson. As a result of this political activity, Wilson was elected the first black mayor of Oakland, California, in 1976. Brown was at Wilson’s side during his victory speech.
With Wilson’s victory, Newton, who was acquitted of his crime, was allowed to come home. Newton’s return signalled a change once again in the party, for Newton was more interested in supporting the Brothers in the organization than in dealing with the party’s political activities. Soon, all of the progress that Brown had made, especially in the area of women’s rights within the Black Panther Party, was disintegrating. Women were once again treated as irrelevant sexual objects and became the focus of years of frustration and anger by the Brothers who had seen them rise in power. Those leaders who had thrown their support to Brown during Newton’s absence quickly withdrew that support from her. She knew that it was only a matter of time before she would have to face party chastisement to appease the Brothers.
Believing it was the only thing she could do, Brown left Oakland with her daughter in 1977 and eventually immigrated to France. She recalls her thoughts on leaving in her autobiography: “Now I’m flying away, abandoning what I had sworn to die for, leaving comrades and friends, and so much work undone. Yet I could not be so arrogant as to imagine that I was indispensable. I could not be so mad as to sacrifice myself to a dream that was dying. The pain was entwined in the complexity, for I loved the Black Panther Party.”
A Library Journal review of A Taste of Power complained that “Brown’s autobiography ends inconclusively: she does not seem to have grasped how her own past actions presently affect her life. Does she experience feelings of guilt or regret? We don’t find out.” But Brown told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, “I’m not proud about a lot of stuff that I have done, but I’m really a good person…. I’m really who I say I am…. I really do believe in love; I really do believe in peace and not war, and I really do believe that every human being has serious value.” Brown lives just outside of Paris with Pierre Elby, a retired industrialist.
Brown, Elaine, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Pantheon, 1992.
Black Enterprise, May 1993, p. 14.
Detroit Free Press, March 25, 1979, p. C1; January 27, 1993, p. F3.
Essence, February 1993, p. 56.
Library Journal, October 15, 1992, p. 8; December 1992, p. 148.
Nation, September 6-13, 1993, p. 251.
New York Times Magazine, January 31, 1993, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, November 9, 1992, p. 65; February 7, 1994, p. 44.
San Francisco Review of Books, March/April 1993, pp. 16-20.
Sepia, September 1977, pp. 26-28.
Soul Illustrated, October 1970, pp. 50-55.
Time, February 22, 1993, p. 73.
Whole Earth Review, Summer 1993, p. 82.
—Paula M. Morin
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