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Social justice crusader takes on election
November 3rd, 2012
06:40 AM ET

Civil rights icon fighting for change one registered voter at a time

This is the last in an occasional series on issues of race, identity and politics ahead of Election Day, including a look at the optics of politics, a white Southern Democrat fighting for survival and how parallels to the past haunt the age of Obama.

By Jen Christensen, CNN

San Francisco (CNN) - To call the Rev. Amos C. Brown a veteran of the civil rights movement is an understatement.

He was just 15 when he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in San Francisco after being driven cross-country by Mississippi activist Medgar Evers.

He was one of eight students handpicked to take the only college class King ever taught. He and King were arrested during a lunch-counter sit-in at a nearby downtown Atlanta department store. He also was one of the famed Freedom Riders who blazed a trail through the Deep South.

At 71 and slowed by a stroke, Brown could be satisfied as senior pastor to his 3,000-strong flock at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, the Bay Area's version of King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Instead, he has been working behind the scenes - praying with President Barack Obama before his second debate - as well as working on the front lines, trying to register as many African-Americans as possible ahead of Tuesday's election.

His goal: to strengthen his community's political voice, fight against what he perceives as efforts to diminish that voice and keep the country's first black president in office.

"My mentor (Evers) died trying to get people the vote – a right that was theirs. We've got to remember this," he says. "People must know how many others were sacrificed trying to get people this right."

Walking 'the line'

It's a warm mid-October day when Brown and two volunteers from his church head out to the San Francisco County Jail and a Fillmore District barbershop to make personal appeals to register voters.

First stop is the jail, where Brown gingerly makes his way up the building's steps and is met by Susan Fahey, a representative from the sheriff's office.

She reminds the group not to bring in cell phones or purses. "And watch your black pens," she says. "They will try to take them."

Brown's group is here as part of "This Is My Vote," a national project of major African-American Baptist conventions and the NAACP, where he's on the board of directors.

The NAACP started the campaign after several states passed laws the organization fears will disenfranchise millions of American voters, including the elimination of Sunday voting, voter ID requirements and bans on allowing ex-felons to vote.

The Rev. Amos Brown’s office is crowded with awards and multiple boxes of research.

After going through extensive security, Brown's small group meets with Nick Gregoratos, a lawyer whose passion is registering prisoners. Together, under close supervision, they enter "the line," the main hallway of this 1960s-era facility.

Narrow cells are on each side. As they enter, dozens of young men in orange sweat suits, many of whom had been sleeping, get up and move to the front of their cells. They stand, curious, watching closely from behind thick gray bars.

Brown goes up to each cell and talks with the men. Many recognize and greet him warmly.

"Dr. Brown," they call out. "Over here, come over here."

When they get to the first cell, Gregoratos shouts out the rules, which are complicated for those doing time in California. But many of the jail's prisoners are eligible to vote.

"Now remember, you can't use the jail as your address. Use where you last lived or if you were homeless, list the closest intersection," he tells an inmate filling out a form.

He explains how the inmates will get an opportunity to vote on their interests.

"Three ballot issues you'll care about: three strikes, the death penalty and affordable housing," Gregoratos says.

California Proposition 36 would revise the three strikes law to impose a life sentence only if the third crime is "serious or violent." It would also allow lifers to be re-sentenced if their third crime wasn't "serious or violent." State Proposition 34 would eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option. San Francisco's Proposition C would create a trust fund to create more affordable housing in one of the most expensive markets in the country.

"See," Brown says, "it is in your best interest to vote."

Mae B. Winn, one of Brown's volunteers, talks with many of the men. On these visits she finds herself preaching the Gospel more than talking about registering people to vote.

"But I always find a way to bring it back around," Winn says. "It's that important."

She closes a conversation with a young man by saying, "You may not have much, but you do have a right to vote in this country that can't be taken away."

As Brown watches one young man with a small tattoo on his cheek fill out a registration form, another prisoner calls out to him. He explains that his grandfather is a member of Brown's congregation.

"We knew each other back in Jackson," Brown says to one of his volunteers, referring to the man's grandfather. "This is much too small a world."

After their chat, the man fills out a voter registration form. Brown then steps back and quietly surveys all the men crowded up against the bars.

"There is so much wasted talent here," he says.

Brown and his volunteers manage to register about 30 men, some for the first time. "No one ever asked me before," inmate Sherard King says. "I'm glad they took the time."

'Katy Perry … doesn't do it'

The 2008 election marked the first time young black voters had the highest voter turnout rate among racial groups, according to census figures. Some 55.4% of registered African-Americans age 18-24 voted. For those ages 25-44, the figure was higher: 64% .

In comparison, 49.4% of registered whites age 18-24 and 62.1% of those age 25-44 voted. For Asians, 40.6% between 18 and 24 voted; for Hispanics, that number was 38.8%.

Brown wants to build on those figures. From memory, he rattles off the numbers of unregistered voting-age African-Americans the way some men rattle off baseball players' batting averages: "495,658 in Georgia; in New York, 395,170; in Florida, 406,806; and in my own state, here in California, 208,235," Brown says, quoting figures generated by the NAACP's analysis of census figures.

The Rev. Amos Brown is known for his ability to bring people to their feet with his dynamic preaching. Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared the same speech teacher.

Though Brown has personal tragedy to remind him how crucial the vote is for his community - Evers was assassinated in 1963, five years before King's death - he knows that young people today don't have the same experiences shaping their perspective.

So he tries to reach out to them personally. He and some of his church's volunteers make regular rounds to register and encourage the community to vote.

Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, who wrote her dissertation on the effectiveness of voter registration and mobilization drives, says personal appeals such as this are key.

"Having Katy Perry record a robocall, as one campaign did, doesn't do it," she says. "Studies show that having someone who is a friend make a personal appeal – or even someone pretending to be your friend or who comes across as nice – that is what turns people out to vote."

Photo ops and promises

As Brown leaves the jail, a young woman stops him on the building's steps. "You preached at my grandfather's funeral service last year," the woman says as she shakes his hand and smiles.

She asks for his help. Brown listens closely as she describes a family problem. He promises to follow up. Before she leaves, he reminds her to vote, and she agrees.

A sheriff's officer overhears the exchange and notes, "Dr. Brown truly is the conscious of our community."

Brown walks down one more step before another young woman stops him. This one asks to have her photo taken with him. As her friend pulls out an iPhone, Brown reminds them about the election. They promise to vote and snap a picture.

As he heads to the parking lot, Brown is running a few minutes behind for his next appointment.

"It is a small burden of service," he says, preoccupied with his mission. "I hope people realize they can be heard if they vote."

Wherever Brown goes, it is like this. Another young man stops him in the parking lot. He lets Brown know he's been convicted of a crime. He's upset. He complains his jury was not diverse.

"Jurors are picked from the voter rolls," Brown reminds him. "If people want a jury of their peers, they're going to need to vote."

Brown promises to come to the young man's sentencing.

Praying with the president

A year before his death, King spoke of "the fierce urgency of now."

"In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late," King said. "We must move past indecision to action."

Brown says he was reminded of those words when he and another civil rights veteran, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, were asked to provide spiritual counsel on a conference call with the president before his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney last month.

"We prayed with the president and gave him encouragement," Brown says, not wanting to give away too many details.

"I did tell him to be brave, to be bold."

Bold and brave action has marked Brown's life, and the neighborhood around his church is filled with concrete reminders of his efforts to empower a community.

Outside Third Baptist, he points to where the church runs its soup kitchen. In the last few years, its line has snaked around the block. Down the street, he points to the low-income and senior housing his church built. The structure is at capacity. Then there's the mission his church established to help nearly 3,000 refugees. There's also the AIDS outreach the church started long before people knew what to call the disease.

There are also signs here that the broader community is grateful for the work. The city has put up banners to honor the church's 160th anniversary. There is a colorful mural depicting African-American leaders, Brown's face among the images.

Not too far away sits the City Hall complex. It's where Mayor Willie Brown made the pastor a city supervisor in 1996, and it's where the mission he's on today started more than 50 years ago.

"That's where I first met Dr. King," Brown says. "Medgar Evers drove me across the country in his '55 Olds to an NAACP meeting. I was a youth leader representing Mississippi back then. That's where this all started back in 1956."

He worked with Evers, the NAACP field secretary for their home state of Mississippi, on a secret voter registration drive. They drove all over the state. The work was so dangerous they often disguised themselves as sharecroppers so they wouldn't be noticed.

Brown was just 15, he says, when he first got into the civil rights movement. Since then, he has spent a lifetime trying to create a more just world. This passion put Brown on a first-name basis with almost everyone mentioned in civil rights history books - from King, Lowery and Evers to Rosa Parks and Julian Bond.

Brown was handpicked to take King's class at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Soon after, he and King were arrested together when they staged a lunch counter sit-in at Rich's department store with some of Brown's fellow students and other civil rights activists. In 1961, Brown became one of the famed Freedom Riders, an interracial group of college students who rode interstate buses through the segregated South and faced attacks and imprisonment.

With a recommendation from King, Brown studied at the civil rights leader's alma mater, Crozer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. In 1976 he landed one of the most coveted preaching jobs in the country, taking over as senior pastor at Third Baptist. The congregation is considered so politically important that former President Bill Clinton spoke at the church's 150th anniversary.

Photos of Brown with Clinton, President Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela blanket the walls of his church office.

While he is a player in the political landscape, the public seems to better accept him as a social critic than as a part of the political establishment.

He lost when he ran for a seat on a community college board. He lost when he ran for the San Francisco school board in 1992. He failed to win re-election as a city supervisor in 2000 - after which one political observer noted: "He's a Mr. Outsider, not a Mr. Insider."

The next year, he asked at a post-9/11 memorial service, "America, is there anything you did to set up this climate?" - prompting Sen. Dianne Feinstein and then-Gov. Gray Davis to walk out, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2008, some black pastors criticized him for opposing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. In 2009, he raised eyebrows when he invited his former seminary classmate and President Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, to speak at Third Baptist.

Even as a youth, the establishment didn't always like what he had to say.

When Brown was in high school he nearly got expelled after giving an interview to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that was critical of segregated schools. He said his school was separate but not equal to the schools around him and his teachers were underpaid. When the senior class voted him its president, his school principal declared the election invalid. When he was elected a second time, his principal abolished the student council.

Now one of his biggest political challenges is to make sure his community stays engaged with this year's election. He's determined to make sure individuals, rather than super PACs and corporations, have a real voice in this election.

'One tough customer'

From the jail, Brown heads to the Chicago Barber Shop II, a two-story business where the minister seems to know everyone.

"Do I have a potential voter here?" he asks as he sits in barber Robert Harlin's chair on the second floor.

The Rev. Amos Brown talks politics with his barber and friend, Robert Harlin.

As Harlin gives him a trim, he tells Brown that he always votes.

"I want to give our president four more years," Harlin says. "He needs more time. Isn't that what we should do, Bean Pole?" Harlin calls out, using a waiting customer's nickname.

"Absolutely," says the man, looking up from what he's texting.

Trimmed-up, Brown makes his way down to the first floor of the shop. An 83-year-old customer notices the minister and explains who Brown is to a young barber, who confesses he has never voted.

"I've never missed a vote," the older gentleman says in admonishment. "You really need to make it a habit."

"Dr. Brown, you have a customer here," the man calls out.

Brown is preoccupied with the barber working the next chair over, who gives Brown a dozen excuses. He's on the road too much, he says. He doesn't have time. He doesn't follow the issues.

"He's one tough customer," Brown says to a volunteer who waits nearby. After 10 minutes of quiet and calm conversation between the two, Brown tells the barber, "You really need to think about this."

The barber doesn't budge, but Brown has faced death over such things. A barber's resistance doesn't deter him; instead, it makes him even more determined.

"Again, just think about it," Brown says, as he gets ready to leave. The barber finally agrees. He will at least do that.

Brown puts him on his list to visit later. He is determined to create King's "beloved community" on this Earth, even if he does it just one voter - or barber - at a time.

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Filed under: 2012 Election • Black in America • Discrimination • History • Politics • Race • Social justice • Where we live
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