Ed Brown's quest for racial justice tells UCC's story in the South

Ed Brown's quest for racial justice tells UCC's story in the South

December 31, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

Just two years after the UCC's formation in 1957, Edward M. Brown left ecumenical youth work in Europe to help bring about nonviolent solutions to racial problems in the southern United States.

The UCC employed Brown, beginning in 1959, as a full-time "consultant on race relations," under the direction of Galen Weaver, then part of the UCC's national staff.

While the names and faces of some civil rights leaders became familiar to an entire nation in the early 1960s, Brown gained no fame. Yet, he worked quietly within the UCC and in the South to create a climate of peace and acceptance.

His lifelong commitment to racial reconciliation is a common thread throughout his ministry.

After graduating from Duke University and Yale Divinity School, Brown was ordained in 1944, the same year he began a two-year term as an intern in race relations serving with the former American Missionary Association at UCC-related Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. The UCC recognized Brown's southern roots, his previous experience at Fisk, and his rapport with church leaders - both black and white - would lend credibility to the church's efforts.

He followed that experience with a three-year term with the Student Christian Association on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, where he brought together students from two black denominational colleges and the all-white university.

A full 10 years before the now-famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Brown was organizing integrated rides on Austin's public buses, with black students and white students sharing seats. When this arrangement was challenged by bus drivers, students asked other passengers if they objected. Most of the time, there were no objections and the rides continued, but sometimes the students were asked to leave.

Brown monitored voter registration procedures in Canton, Miss., a community described as "one of Mississippi's toughest towns" by Taylor Branch, a civil rights historian. There Brown recruited and organized potential black voters, while simultaneously helping white pastors to prepare their congregations for a new era. At the court house, African Americans lined up - for over half a city block - to register to vote. The National Guard was on hand, standing 50 feet apart, with bayonets fixed.

Brown's experience at the UCC-related Talladega College, the historically black UCC school in Alabama, was even more challenging.

One night, an integrated group of UCC pastors was meeting at the college when Brown was informed that a station wagon full of "Klan-type whites" was driving around the campus, flashing lights into students' faces and making insulting remarks. Unflinching, Brown walked over to the parked car and introduced himself as a national staff member of the church which founded the college.

"When I asked the driver's name, he said gruffly, 'You don't need to know my name, Rev," Brown recounted. "When I began taking down the car license he became hostile and said, 'You better leave our license number out of this.'"

"I answered with my best nonviolent tone that, 'We just like to know who visits our campus,'" Brown said. A few minutes later, the car drove off.

"That was my closest confrontation with the Klan," he said.

UCC's southern bridge-builder

Starting in 1959, as the UCC's southern race-relations coordinator, Brown often introduced denominational leaders to key figures in the South, such as Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution and Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms.

With his work being administered by the UCC's former Office of Church Extension and Evangelism, Brown received orientation in this work from the legendary preacher-storyteller Will D. Campbell. Both shared Baptist roots which resonated with one another.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Brown and Campbell supported each other, though their assignments differed.

Brown was present at significant moments in the struggle for racial integration. He was one of three white persons to attend the organizing meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where the Rev. James Lawson chaired the gathering and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was present with a few staff members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), then a young seminarian, attended one of Brown's meetings of the Institute on Race Relations at Fisk. And the Rev. Andrew Young, a UCC minister who would later serve as mayor of Atlanta, was often present with Brown, since both were active in the Movement. Brown remembers how Young struggled to make the transition between his work with the National Council of Churches and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, as a member of King's staff.

Brown also advised the YWCA in Atlanta in how to desegregate the Y's downtown cafeteria. When the effort was successful, some of the cafeteria's first customers were leaders of SNCC, as well as King and Ralph Abernathy, whose offices were nearby.

Eyewitness to history

In 1965, when King was honored in Atlanta after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Brown was seated behind King's father. When the honoree walked toward the podium, Brown recalls "Daddy King" saying, "Keep it simple, son. Keep it simple."

The same year, the UCC's "Southeast Convention" voted to receive the African-American churches of the Congregational Christian Convention of the South, in partnership with the southern churches of the former Evangelical and Reformed Church. The result was the establishment of the UCC's Southeast Conference on January 1, 1966.

Two days later, SNCC organizer Sammy Younge was shot to death after he argued with a service station attendant who had refused to allow Younge to use the restroom. About 2,000 students marched in Tuskegee, Ala., in response. Brown was asked to meet with students and help control the threatening violence.

In 1970, Brown ended his full-time work as a UCC race-relations consultant, but he remained in Atlanta where he assisted busy pastors with family counseling assignments.

Ed's wife, Freda, died in 1986. But, the following year, he married his first wife's long-time friend, Joyce Myers. Ironically, Freda Brown had been instrumental in arranging for Myers, who had served as a UCC missionary in Angola, to move to Atlanta as regional executive of the former UCC Office for Church Life and Leadership.

Together, Brown and his wife - both members of Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta - remain committed to working for racial justice.

Robert H. Boyte, in observance of the UCC's 50th anniversary, wrote this biographical sketch on the ministry of Ed Brown, a UCC hero. Boyte, like Brown, is a member of Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta. 

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