Willie Brown
National Visionary

Born March 20, 1934 in Mineola, TX

Former Mayor of San Francisco CA; the California Assembly’s longest serving Speaker and the first AfricanAmerican to represent San Francisco in the state legislature.

Politician, attorney and civil rights activist, Willie L. Brown, Jr. is the first African American to represent San Francisco in the California State Assembly, where he served for more than thirty years, including an unprecedented 15 years as its Speaker. Afterwards, he was elected as the first African American mayor of San Francisco. Throughout his distinguished career, the former mayor was renown for his ability to manage people.

Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. was born on March 20, 1934 in Mineola, TX and raised primarily by his maternal grandmother. Both his parents left Mineola to earn and send more money home to support their children. Brown, Jr. was said to have gotten his outgoing personality, sense of style, and ability to remember names and people from his father. The Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) church was another important element of the Brown's family life, and it was this venue that shaped the future Speaker's oratory.

To earn money during the summer, Brown picked berries and beans on various farms. He also worked as a shoeshine boy in a white barbershop. According to Brown, he grew up in "a caring and protective community, grown close and nearly self-sufficient in the face of ostracism from the rest of society."

However, outbreaks of mob violence against African Americans in Mineola powerfully shaped Brown's self perception. In 1944, when a white truck driver was killed in a scuffle with two black men, and the pair was charged with the death, young white men retaliated against the entire black community. Homes were shot at and set on fire; blacks were encouraged not to go to work and, out of fear, blacks stayed indoors after dark.

In 1951, hoping to attend Stanford University, Brown migrated from Texas to California. Instead, Brown was accepted at San Francisco State College from which he graduated in 1955. While at San Francisco State, Brown supported himself first as a janitor, then youth director for a local church, joined the African American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and signed up for the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

After graduating from college, Brown applied to Hastings College of Law. While in college and law school, Brown was very active in the San Francisco branch of the NAACP.

Brown established a successful career as a lawyer, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He first practiced criminal defense law, representing pimps, prostitutes, and other clients that more prominent attorneys would not represent. One early case was to defend Mario Savio, the young student activist from University of California, Berkeley , on his first civil disobedience arrest.

Brown quickly became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, leading a well-orchestrated sit-in to protest housing discrimination after a local real estate office refused to work with him because of his race. Brown helped organize the public protest which attracted considerable media coverage. His role in the protests gave him the name recognition with voters to run for the State Assembly.

In 1964, Brown became the first African American elected to represent San Francisco in the California State Assembly. While serving there he was appointed to chair the influential Legislative Representation Committee, a role vital to his future political success. In 1969 he became the Democratic Party whip, and served on another powerful committee, Assembly Ways and Means. Following an unsuccessful bid in 1974, Brown became the first African American Speaker of the Assembly in 1980, winning with the support of 28 Republicans and 23 Democrats. He remained Speaker of that body for 15 years, longer than any other individual.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
In 1995, Brown was elected the first African American mayor of San Francisco. He presided over the bountiful, "dot-com" era in the city's growth and orchestrated the building boom that transformed much of the Bay Area during his eight-year term. The numerous projects completed or developed on his watch include the restoration of City Hall and   of the Ferry building; Pacific Bell Park; the Asian Art Museum; an expanded convention center; a new biomedical campus on the University of California, San Francisco and a subway extension to San Francisco lnternational Airport. Brown won a second term as mayor in 1999 and retired from politics after 39 years of service in 2004.

After the mayoralty, he briefly co-hosted a radio talk show in 2006 and established The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics & Public Service, a non-profit organization which trains students for careers in municipal, county and regional governments. In 2008 he published an autobiography, Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times .


Willie Brown's Wikipedia Page


David Dinkins's Visionary Page
Douglas L. Wilder's Visionary Page

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