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Somebody Had To Do It

Somebody Had To Do It
February 2016
Activist and educator DR. MILLICENT BROWN was a “first child” to integrate Charleston public schools in 1963 and today continues to speak out against racism and social injustice

Blazing studio lights compounded the late summer heat as a tangle of wires and a film crew transformed the sanctuary of Circular Congregational Church into a TV studio. A diverse crowd squeezed into the pews for the three-hour taping—listening, shaking heads, nodding, wiping tears, chorusing intermittent “amens” while PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill asked hard questions about racism, healing, justice, and where we go from here in “America After Charleston,” which aired last fall. In the spotlight at the front, a panel of nationally known and local leaders chimed in on the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shootings. But a comment from a woman in the very back pew is what caught Ifill’s attention.

The veteran reporter heard in this woman’s voice something bold, something strong and true. Ifill asked her to repeat her comments so the cameras could capture her words clearly: “As a native Charlestonian, I am very disturbed about this national image of Charleston being so special, so unique, because we are so forgiving. That’s a false message in many ways…. We should be asking, ‘Why is a community so beat down that it is afraid to show anger?’” said Dr. Millicent Brown, her voice pointed but not shrill.

“We have to break this false dichotomy that says we have to either forgive or be angry,” she continued as the camera zoomed in. “Forgiveness is a personal thing…. But as a community, we’re not forgiving of racism; we’re not forgiving of the injustices that have been perpetrated against us.” “Amens” and applause followed. Brown returned to the back pew.

This nationally televised broadcast was far from the first time Brown has spoken out about racism. A recent New York Times article quoting her on racial issues in Charleston is just the latest in a long string of newspaper clippings, many now yellowed, featuring Brown in the thick of the civil rights era. The articles date back to the early 1960s, when she made headlines as the chief plaintiff in a desegregation lawsuit against Charleston County School District 20.

“I call it the ‘little Brown’ case,” Brown laughs, distinguishing the 1963 Millicent Brown et al v. School District No. 20, Charleston, South Carolina from the famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregation was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. The suit was initially filed in 1959 under Millicent’s older sister Minerva’s name, as South Carolina school officials and courts were determined to ignore the integration mandate.

It wasn’t until nine years after segregation was outlawed nationally (during which time Minerva approached high school graduation, and Millicent’s name was substituted when she was in seventh grade) that federal Judge Robert Martin ruled in favor of Brown et al. This judgement cleared the way for then 15-year-old Millicent and the 10 other African-American students (her fellow plaintiffs) to be admitted to heretofore exclusively white, and better resourced, Charleston public schools. Brown, a 10th grader, and Jackie Ford, an eighth grader, walked into Rivers High School on September 3, 1963, Millicent wearing her Bob Ellis shoes and Dippity-Doo tamed hair. There were no armed federal marshals; no snarling crowds spewing hateful threats—just silent glares and a sea of wary white students and teachers, along with three bomb threats on that first day.   

We Were In It
In many ways, Brown’s identity and path were forever changed by being one of these “first children”—her name for the cohort of black students across the country who paved the way for integration. “But I always tell people that the two things that most influenced my life, I had absolutely nothing to do with,” says Brown, referring to the era of her birth—the “watershed years” of the mid-20th century—and the household into which she was born. Her father, J. Arthur Brown, was an independent business owner of Brown & Chisholm Real Estate and Insurance, based in an office next door to their home at 270 Ashley Avenue. His father, Arthur Brown, was a highly regarded contractor who built many homes and apartments in the black community, including the Browns’ large two-story house, complete with a full basement—a Charleston rarity.

Millicent’s mother, MaeDe—one of five sisters all with college degrees—was the comptroller of the Cannon Street Hospital, which became the McClennan-Banks Memorial Hospital (black doctors couldn’t have privileges at other hospitals). The couple met as undergraduates at South Carolina State College in MaeDe’s native Orangeburg; Millicent was the youngest of their three daughters, with brother Myles trailing 20 years later.  

“I was born into an activist household. My father spent the greater part of his adulthood directly engaged in social change,” says his proud daughter. As president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch from 1955 to 1960 and of the statewide NAACP from 1960 to 1965, J. Arthur led the charge during the most tenuous and tumultuous times for South Carolina’s black activists and received the hate mail and death threats, as well as a cross burning in the family’s front yard, to prove it. (The Avery Research Center archives include letters sparsely addressed to “J. Arthur Brown, Negro Troublemaker, Charleston SC” that made it from Georgia to his mailbox).

When Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, and other national black leaders came to town, they stayed with the Browns. Kitchen-table conversations regularly included local stalwarts such as Septima Clark, Etta Clark, Bernice Robinson, Esau Jenkins, and Herbert Fielding. During the summers, the Brown family vacationed at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee—one of the nation’s few interracial schools (red flagged in 1936 by J. Edgar Hoover after he received a letter from a Monteagle resident calling it a “hotbed for anarchy and communism”). “Highlander is where I first interacted with white people,” says Brown, who learned international songs and dances from the school’s co-founder, Zilphia Horton, while the adults attended workshops and community-organizing training sessions. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt were among Highlander’s workshop leaders; Rosa Parks and Septima Clark were regulars there.

“We knew this was an important moment in time,” says Brown. “We were in it—our family was sitting in, marching, picketing, going to Highlander. My sister Minerva was arrested at the Kress sit-in. I was first arrested during the so-called ‘Charleston riot’ in front of The News and Courier, but was too young to be taken to jail. I understood that this was part of a larger movement.”

And other kids, like Nelson Rivers, realized it, too. “The Browns are among all the heroes of the civil rights movement. J. Arthur was a giant,” says the Reverend Nelson B. Rivers III, senior pastor of Charity Baptist Church in North Charleston, who grew up on Rutledge Avenue and was just a few years younger than Millicent. “And as a young person, I was certainly aware of the lawsuit.” At the time, Rivers’ parents asked if he wanted to sign on to it, but he declined—his heart was set on going to the all-black Burke High School. “Millicent Brown’s name was said with reverence at our house. She was a hero of mine long before I got to know her.”  

Yet even though Brown comprehended the enormity of her circumstances, she says she “didn’t understand how this was just a microcosm of what white supremacy really is. I didn’t understand that just a few years after we desegged the schools, there’d be white flight and we’d be segregated all over again. I had no idea how intractable racism is. Maybe it was naiveté on my part, and on some of the adults’. My father really believed that if we could just get these children together, we could change the thinking.”

Not-So Fast Forward
Today, 52 years after Brown left the comfort and security of her beloved and esteemed Burke High to integrate Rivers, enrollment at Burke is 99 percent African-American, and the school consistently ranks “Below Average” or “At Risk” in state assessments. Other public elementary schools on the peninsula are predominately African-American and low-performing, with the exception of Buist Academy, a magnet K-8 school that consistently ranks among the top schools in the district—and is mostly white.

Does this make Brown angry? You bet. But rather than stew and gripe and shake her head in frustrated disbelief that after all she went through, de facto segregation remains the status quo a half century later, Brown channels her anger into action. “I’m interested in the bigger issues, way beyond my personal experiences,” she says.

The veteran educator, who went on from Rivers High to earn her bachelor’s degree from the College of Charleston, a master’s in education from The Citadel, and a doctorate in U.S. history from Florida State University, retired last year after two decades as a college history professor, teaching American and civil rights history at Guilford College, Bennett College, Hofstra University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Claflin University. She’s returned to James Island, to her home overlooking the serene marshes on Camp Road, land that’s been in her father’s family for six generations, and where her own family relocated in 1965 when construction of the Crosstown (Highway 17) plowed right through their Ashley Avenue living room, “eviscerating an intact black community, a pattern that’s been repeated across the country,” she adds. And she’s also come full circle to Burke High, where one of her many community involvements includes serving on Burke’s School Improvement Council.

In addition to advocating for a stronger Burke, she’s working closely with the Quality Education Project (QEP) to enhance quality and diversity across all Charleston County schools. The group, comprised of educators, parents, clergy, and citizens, strategizes and researches evidence-based best practices to improve educational opportunity and outcomes for all students. “We are questioning the quick fixes that many school systems, including CCSD, often buy into. Quality Education Project is bringing a broader group to the table to do scholarly research and advocate for what real public education should look like,” Brown says. “It’s hard work, and it takes time and serious commitment.”

“Professor Brown brings a dedicated, impassioned commitment to everything she does. She pushes us [at QEP] to question the assumptions of the decision makers. She’s the voice in the room raising the critical questions no else is asking,” says Jon Hale, a College of Charleston education professor and QEP codirector with Brown.

“Millicent is remarkable in that she continues to be a witness, to show up and be present. A lot of people who lived through that kind of intensity when they were young respond with a sense of ‘I’ve had enough.’ Not Millicent,” says Susan Dunn, Brown’s longtime friend and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina. Brown currently serves on the ACLU’s South Carolina board of directors and as the state’s representative to the national ACLU. “She has a remarkable resiliency and a capacity to speak the truth in an effective way, because her purpose is to be heard, not to shut others down.” Regarding her work with the ACLU, Dunn adds, “Millicent is a voice to us institutionally that we can’t rest on our laurels; she’s pushed us toward diversity in the issues we address, including work on criminal justice and LGBT issues.”

The Right Somebody
While actively serving on various boards and groups, including the advisory committee of the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium at S.C. State University and the South Carolina advisory committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Brown is also a consultant on diversity and race relations issues. She speaks frequently at schools and to groups and partners with the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center. But now that she’s retired, Brown’s chief focus is pouring her heart and energy into her “Somebody Had To Do It” oral history project.

In 2006, Brown created “Somebody Had To Do It” with political scientist Dr. Paula Quick Hall and licensed family counselor Vanessa Jackson as a platform for other “first children” around the country to share their personal experiences. As project director, Brown draws on her expertise as a historian and trained counselor to document the narratives of those who bear the emotional scars of integration. “These were young children put on the front lines to make white people do the right thing. There was a cost, a suffering, and we’ve not given enough voice to the complexity of this,” she says.

Through this project, now part of the Avery Research Center’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Brown hopes the civil rights story will not just be told as a time line of legislation and court cases, but that historians, political scientists, and others will understand the psychological impact that children endured in trying to bring about social change. Forty interviews have been completed thus far, and Brown is actively seeking funding for further documentation. The stories vary, from the trauma and tension of the Little Rock Nine to more subtle ostracism to sincere inclusion—“but none were a piece of cake,” adds Brown. “These were human beings, and one of the challenges, I believe, as far as race relations is concerned, is that we have failed to humanize black children.” A failure, she points out, that reverberates in today’s Black Lives Matter conversation.

“Yes, somebody had to do it, but it had to be the right somebody,” says Reverend Rivers. “Millicent was the right somebody. She’s the first to say she wasn’t the only one. And she came out of that experience and is still involved, still engaged, adding voice and light to ongoing work for social justice. She has the stripes of the struggle. She speaks out of experience, a living history lesson that can set the record straight.”

Watch PBS NewsHour’s “America After Charleston,” during which Dr. Millicent Brown and others discuss racism and other issues after a white gunman shot and killed nine African-American parishioners in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015:

Listen to Dr. Millicent Brown’s oral history in the “Somebody Had To Do It: First Children in School Desegregation” archive:

Find other oral histories: