Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

January 2, 1998

THE UGLY JIM CROW HOUSTON, in which retired Portland Judge Aaron Brown grew up enduring harsh segregation, roosts in the shameful shadows of the cosmopolitan Texas metropolis where former Portlander Lee Brown takes over this month as the first black mayor.

Aaron Brown, 71, knows what it's like to be a racial trailblazer-- he was Oregon's first black judge when appointed in 1969 to the Portland Municipal Court by Terry Schrunk, then the city's non-partisan mayor. A former union fire fighter, Schrunk had earlier been the Democratic county sheriff.

The two Browns knew each other when Lee lived here in the 1960s and '70s. The former San Jose policeman came here to teach criminal justice classes at Portland State. Later he was appointed Multnomah County sheriff by then-County Executive Don Clark, who next named him justice services administrator. Lee Brown departed in the late 1970s to become Atlanta's police chief, and moved westward in 1982 to run Houston's police department. New York City beckoned him in 1990 to take a bite out of Big Apple crime as police commissioner, a post he left in 1992. Subsequently, President Bill Clinton tabbed him to head up the nation's drug-fighting program. From Washington, D.C., he returned to Houston to teach at Rice University.

UNTIL BROWN'S ELECTION, the nation's fourth-largest city was the biggest U.S. municipality that had never elected a black mayor.

The well-traveled Brown, 60, defeated Rob Mosbacher, a 46-year-old white oilman whose wealthy father was Republican President George Bush's secretary of commerce. Bush, a Houston resident, campaigned for Mosbacher. President Clinton endorsed Brown for the non-partisan post, as did the outgoing mayor and his predecessor, the city's first woman mayor, who'd hired Brown as police chief in 1982.

Brown polled 53 percent of the votes of the 300,000 Houstonians who marked ballots in the Nov. 4 election, a low turnout in a city of 1.8 million residents. Whites, blacks and Hispanics each make up one-third of the city's population. Brown won despite a negative advertising campaign run by Mosbacher, who spent a record-setting $4 million.

THE HOUSTON that elected Lee Brown as mayor and the segregated, overgrown cattle and oil town with a busy port where Aaron Brown came of age are differentiated by the generational changes and enlightenment of a half-century, an influx of a million people, the advent of the civil rights movement, and passage of voting rights and civil rights laws. Some rights laws were put on the books by the persuasiveness of a Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, when he was president in the 1960s. Johnson's infusion of pork-barrel billions made Houston a space hub and an international center for medical research, education and treatment.

"IT'S A DIFFERENT world down there now," Judge Brown told the Northwest Labor Press as he contemplated the changes, "but 80 percent of the poverty I knew still exists there." He was born in Louisiana but his family moved to Houston while he was of pre-school age. Not long after graduating from a black high school he left to join the U.S. Army near the close of World War II.

"I left because I felt I would be killed," he said, recalling how two white policemen knocked him down and roughed him up because he failed to take off his hat when they stopped their prowl car to question him. His crime was walking through a white neighborhood to reach his home in the black Fifth Ward after leaving a dance in a downtown auditorium.

"They used the cops to enforce apartheid," Judge Brown said in recalling the police brutality.

After service in the Quartermaster Corps which was one place the Army segregated black soldiers, Brown used the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend Southern University in Louisiana and Fisk College in Tennessee. He also worked on railroads as a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He knew the railroad union's founder and first president, A. Philip Randolph, a pioneer unionist and civil rights leader whose name lives on in the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an AFL-CIO-sponsored organization.

Brown later migrated to Vancouver B.C., but the only job he could find there was on a railroad, so he worked on the Canadian-Pacific as a Pullman car porter to build a stake for law school.

HE SETTLED ON PORTLAND as a place to relocate in because of its night law school, Northwestern, now a part of Lewis and Clark College, and because he wanted to return to the United States.

"In spite of all its faults, America is the place to be," Brown said. "You can make things happen in America."

But he said Portland in the early 1950s bore a racist resemblance to Houston except that he was not harassed by police and there were no "white" and "colored" signs on public drinking fountains and restrooms. But in hotels and restaurants, not-so subtle signs warned: "We have the right to refuse service to anyone." And at movie theaters he was directed to the balcony, just like in Houston.

THINGS CHANGED for the better after the 1957 Oregon Legislature passed civil rights legislation known as the public accommodations law and it was signed by then-Governor Mark Hatfield.

To help pay his way through law school, Brown worked as a county welfare caseworker. After graduation in 1959, he began practicing law and became active in the Democratic Party.

Brown didn't jump at the opportunity to become a judge when City Hall offered it because it meant a pay cut from what he was earning as a lawyer. But he accepted the appointment because his wife's paycheck as a telephone company manager offset the lower pay and, "As a judge I might be able to do something about the injustices I saw," he said.

Those injustices included keeping accused people in jail over the weekend if they couldn't afford to pay a bail bondsman to secure their release until they went to court. Prisoners also found themselves hauled out to pick beans on farms of politically-connected farm operators, he recalled.

JUDGE BROWN pushed for a reform to permit releasing prisoners on their own recognizance so they weren't at the mercy of the bail system.

Portland Municipal Court was merged into the Multnomah County District Court in 1971 and then-Governor Tom McCall, a Republican, appointed Brown as a District Court judge. He ran for election to six-year terms four times and faced opposition only once. He retired three years ago.

In his years on the bench, Judge Brown attended many labor functions and spoke at some of them. "I've always felt at home around union people," he said.

Aaron and Alvenice Brown have two sons and a daughter. Gregory works at a Portland bank; Eric is president of a cosmetic company in Dallas, and Yvette is a salesperson for that company.

GROWING UP in Houston with Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's picture hanging in the living room, it was only natural that he became a Democrat. His mother lived to be 88, and his father, Aaron Brown Sr., was 90 when he died seven years ago in Houston. Brown has a brother, a retired truck driver, still living in Houston.

Judge Brown credits the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s non-violent approach to breaking down racial segregation with saving the United States from the bloodshed of widespread violence.

"If Dr. King hadn't come along, those advocating a violent overthrow of segregation would have taken over," he said.


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