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In her new memoir, activist Millicent Brown shares a personal account of what the civil rights movement entailed for her and her family

In her new memoir, activist Millicent Brown shares a personal account of what the civil rights movement entailed for her and her family
June 2024

Brown was one of two Black students to integrate Rivers High School in 1963

Throughout her life, Millicent Brown has been front and center with momentous people during momentous times. Her memoir, Another Sojourner Looking for Truth, which documents what the civil rights struggle meant for her and her family, was published in April.

We are each born into a particular place and time, and some of us lean into that destiny more purposefully, more boldly, than others. Millicent Brown is one such person. As the youngest daughter of J. Arthur and MaDae Brown—a college-educated, entrepreneurial power couple—she grew up at the nexus of all-things civil rights in Charleston in the 1950s and ’60s. Her father served as president of Charleston’s NAACP chapter and later as consultant to President Lyndon Johnson on race relations, thus the Brown’s 270 Ashley Avenue residence was the de facto headquarters for strategizing, advocacy, and power-brokering. There, the Browns plotted a years-long course to integrate Charleston schools, fought for equal pay for the Medical University of South Carolina’s hospital workers, and worked to advance other antidiscrimination campaigns. 

When Medgar Evers or Thurgood Marshall came to town, they stayed with the Browns, who ultimately were forced to move because the house was demolished for the Crosstown. Young Millicent knew Septima Clark as “Mama Seppie;” she frequented the Progressive Club on John’s Island, the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, and Tennessee’s Highlander School with Clark, Esau Jenkins, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. Brown absorbed early lessons in Black feminism from Marguerite Belafonte (wife of Harry) and picked up legalese from Matthew J. Perry, the first Black district judge in South Carolina.

In her new memoir, Another Sojourner Looking for Truth (University of South Carolina Press, April 2024), Brown offers a vivid, personal, and oftentimes wrenching account of what the struggle for Black freedom, equality, and respect entailed for her and her family. When Brown’s older sister, Minerva, aged out of the school desegregation case in which she had been named plaintiff, Millicent’s name was substituted, which is how, in 1963, she became one of two Black students to integrate Charleston’s all-white Rivers High School. 

Brown (left) on her first day of school where she was one of two Black students to integrate Rivers High.

Brown never asked to become one of the nation’s “First Children” in the tumultuous 1960s; it was a fate of timing and parenthood, and rising to the occasion was costly. “The responsibility of ‘representing the race’ was the most important I had ever taken on. And I was not about to fail,” she writes. That’s a hefty burden for a teenager. Unsurprisingly, Brown subsequently struggled with anxiety. Her memoir recounts her hopscotching “sojourn” from college in Boston to Atlanta, then dropping out to work for the movement in Mississippi and San Francisco. She needed “to be doing the people’s labor while utilizing whatever intellectual understanding of the struggle we had,” she writes. 

Brown’s tale is a lively and informative who’s who of the civil rights era and beyond. She knew Malcolm X; was close to Verta Mae Grosvenor; Henry Winkler (yes, “the Fonz”) was her adopted guidance counselor during her freshman year in Boston. But Brown—who graduated from the College of Charleston and went on to earn her doctorate and teach college history and African American studies—has done more than rub elbows with notable people. She’s often rubbed institutions the wrong way, in all the right ways—pushing them toward greater inclusivity and honesty in reckoning with discrimination in all its forms. The book’s final chapter outlines issues Brown and others have had with the planning process and programming at the International African American Museum. “We questioned why Black folks get silenced when wanting to be involved in our own historical interpretation,” she writes.

Brown’s memoir illustrates that she has earned her cred as an outspoken, thoughtful critic. We’d do well to listen (and read). While the litanies of all that is wrong—all the “isms” and ills that need our attention—can get tiring to read, that might be the point. It is tiring, and Brown has a right to be weary. Some 60 years after she crossed the color threshold of Rivers High School, Burke High School remains basically all Black. “Why should a woman involved in desegregating the city’s schools in 1963 have to come before this body asking the same questions about access to quality resources that were asked back then?” she asks of the Charleston County School District Board. “I had grown weary of teaching white people what their role should be in transforming this society,” she writes in powerful prose that feels more energized than exhausted. Brown’s seven-decade long sojourn gives us a valuable perspective on the ongoing struggle for justice and equality—a journey both “looking for truth” and telling the truth.

READ editor at large Stephanie Hunt’s 2016 profile, “Somebody Had To Do It,” on Millicent Brown.