Byrd R. Brown Biography
Attorney, civil rights activist
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Byrd Brown is considered a local hero. As a courageous and articulate civil rights activist, he fought prejudice and inequality during a time in history when progressive political leadership was crucial in America, thus giving voice to those who had no access to power. "Byrd Brown was an African American who stood in the front lines of the civil rights movement and faced down enormous hatred and prejudice. It takes a rare kind of courage to be able to do that," said Pittsburgh's mayor Tom Murphy in the Post Gazette.
Brown was also an attorney who was known for his great success in court as well as his willingness to give his services free of charge to those who couldn't afford it. "Pro bono was his middle name," said former NAACP president Harvey Adams in the Post Gazette. "He did a thorough job whether the client had a nickel or nothing." Brown's passion for fairness and equality, his charismatic leadership abilities, and dynamic and warm personality made him a powerful influence in the Pittsburgh African-American community.
Born in 1930, Byrd Rowlett Brown was destined for success. As the only child of the prominent Homer S. and Wilhelmina Byrd Brown, Byrd saw firsthand the character qualities needed to become an influential leader. Homer Brown, Allegheny County's first black judge, set an example for his son as a civil rights activist as well as a generous and energetic contributor to the Pittsburgh community. As the father of the Pennsylvania state Fair Employment Practices Act, Homer Brown is known to have also created one of the first pieces of Pennsylvania legislation that prohibited discrimination in public places. Byrd's mother is also known as a talented civil rights activist who dedicated 50 years of her life to pubic service. His grandfather, the Reverend William Roderick Brown, was a well-known Pittsburgh North Side preacher.
Byrd graduated from Schenley High School in 1947 and then earned a bachelor of arts degree and a law degree from Yale University. Some of his contemporaries at Yale were George H. W. Bush, William F. Buckley, and Pat Robertson. Brown married Marilyn Parker and was later divorced. At the time of his death in 2001, he was survived by his wife Barbara and two daughters, Cortlyn Wilhelmina Brown and Patricia Brown Stephens.
Although born into a prominent and wealthy family, Byrd did not live above the black community, but for them. In spite of his success—revealed in his sports cars, property holdings, and Caribbean trips—Byrd strove to improve life for his fellow man. He was known to share his success with his community by donating generously to college scholarships and non-profit organizations that assisted the poor and less fortunate. For example, in the 1970s, when Warner Cable came to Pittsburgh, Brown arranged for company stock to be donated to several local charities. According to the Reverend Leroy Patrick, pastor emeritus of Bethesda Presbyterian Church, when Warner Cable was later bought out, his church received $300,000 for its stock.
Brown was also a contemporary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1960s Brown helped to organize rallies at Forbes Field where King spoke, and in 1963 he helped lead a train convoy to the March on Washington. According to the Post Gazette, he stayed for some time listening to speeches and was about to leave when King began his most famous "I Have a Dream" speech. "All of us just somehow turned around and crowded back to the podium. And by the time he was finished I was crying like a baby," Brown said in a ceremony held in his honor by the Homer S. Brown Law Association in 2000. The ceremony was meant to honor Brown for his civil rights activism, and those who attended recalled how in 1967 Brown organized a downtown march of 5,000 people to seek better jobs for blacks at the company Duquesne Light.
Brown also organized marches against Mine Safety Appliances, Gimbels, Kaufmann's, Hornes, the Board of Education, Sears Roebuck, and the University of Pittsburgh. He picketed construction sites to push for more black jobs in construction. During one violent police confrontation, Brown suffered beatings and was sprayed with mace. His efforts, along with those of other civil rights activists, produced the Pittsburgh Plan, which was considered a national model for training blacks for construction jobs.
"I thought he symbolized all the things that we should aspire to be," said Louis "Hop" Kendrick in the Post Gazette. Kendrick knew Brown during his boyhood in the affluent neighborhood called Sugar Top, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and later marched with him to desegregate Pittsburgh public schools. "He was above reproach. He was always accessible. He had a sense of commitment.… He was financially independent. They couldn't buy him off. They couldn't offer him a job. They couldn't offer him a check."
Byrd was thought of as one of the best trial lawyers that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has ever produced. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith, who practiced law with Brown from 1972 to 1987, claimed that his sharp litigation skills, his learning in the law, his compassion, sensitivity, and his toughness made him one of the best lawyers in Pittsburgh history. He was also known as a tremendous mentor and teacher. U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster, who worked for Brown from 1981 to 1987, said that Brown was committed to first class work, and did not tolerate sloppy work or poor excuses.
In 1970 Brown ran for Congress, and in 1989 he ran for mayor of Pittsburgh. "Byrd is the word," was the slogan for his mayoral candidacy, which was kicked off from the pulpit of Central Baptist Church in the Hill District. Although he did not win either election, he continued to be a spokesman for fairness and equality in the arena of civic and business leadership. Brown served as president of the Pittsburgh NAACP from 1958 to 1971. His father, the founder and first president of the Pittsburgh NAACP, served in the same capacity for 24 years. Under their combined leadership, the NAACP experienced unparalleled local success.
Byrd Brown died on May 3, 2001, of emphysema and complications from a lung transplant. He died on the day of the annual Pittsburgh human-rights dinner his mother helped found more than 40 years earlier. A 2001 editorial about Brown in the Post-Gazette said, "emphysema finally took his life, but the spirit that animated countless battles for equality lives on."
"Byrd Brown Feted by Peers," Post Gazette (January 18, 2000), www.post-gazette.com/businessnews/20000118brown3.asp (November 22, 2004).
"Byrd Brown: The Lawyer and Activist Took the Harder Road," Post Gazette (May 8, 2001), www.postgazette.com/forum/2001050edbyrd5.asp (November 22, 2004).
Glasco, Laurence. "The Civil Rights Movement in Pittsburgh: To Make This City Some Place Special," Freedom Corner, www.freedomcorner.org/downloads/glasco.pdf (December 4, 2004).
"Lawyer Byrd Brown Dies; Giant in Civil Rights Struggle," Post Gazette (May 4, 2001), www.postgazette.com/obituaries/20010504brown2.asp (November 22, 2004).
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