“Servility Is Just Not for Me”: Robert Brown and the Racial Politics of the Alabama Black Belt

Robert Brown was an educator, civil rights activist, community leader, elected official, and a WWII combat veteran.

Top image: Superintendent Robert Brown with Governor Wallace.

During the early post-World War II period, America fought an ideological and geopolitical war against communism. Given this environment, military integration and Cold War rhetoric encouraged African Americans to make greater social and political demands on American society. The postwar period reflected significant achievements in the struggle for equality in the Federal justice system and US Armed Forces. The advancements further motivated and empowered African Americans and students at Black colleges and universities. The struggle for social equality was very much a servicemember’s story of how military service and training motivated ordinary men and women to return home after serving their nation to fight for their own social, political, and legal equality. According to Charles Cobb, “Having fought overseas under the banner of democracy, they were determined to fight for democracy at home. If any single group within the Black community should be highlighted for their importance to the freedom Movement, it is these veterans.”

Robert Brown was an educator, civil rights activist, community leader, elected official, and a WWII combat veteran. Much of his life was devoted to the fight for equal rights and social justice for African Americans in the “Black Belt” of East Alabama after World War II. Brown achieved many things throughout his impressive career as a servant leader, but he is most distinguished for being one of the first African Americans in the South to serve as school superintendent in Greene County, Alabama, from 1970 to 1980. During his tenure as Superintendent, Dr. Brown improved the lives of students, teachers, and the region in significant ways. He secured $8 million to build a new high school (Greene County High School) at no cost to taxpayers, championed the construction of P.J. Kirksey Vocational School, established a Head Start Program, and developed a dental and healthcare program for all preschool children under his jurisdiction. Brown also implemented the first free breakfast and lunch programs in the school system and the first summer feeding program for children and eligible mothers in Greene County.

A civil rights activist and local organizer, he had strong ties to Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders and WWII Army veterans Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams. Though Brown was relatively uninvolved in civil rights activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, subsequent sit-ins, freedom rides, and Birmingham demonstrations during the early 1960s, he did however devote a great deal of energy and organizational skills to the voter registration campaigns of 1965. In particular, he was moved by the murder of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo by Ku Klux Klan members in Montgomery, Alabama, during the SCLC Selma voting rights campaign. Brown’s activities quickly caught the attention of his boss and principal, Alphonso A.W. Young, who castigated him when he remarked, “You have a chip on your shoulder that your army experience made worse. You should leave your temper at home.” Brown replied defiantly, “Servility is just not for me.”

In the early 20th century in rural Alabama, Robert Brown had a typical background and upbringing. His parents, Charles Brown and Minne Colvin Brown, enjoyed only a few years of formal education and worked as sharecroppers on the property of Frank Irvin Eatman. The Brown family crops consisted of cotton, peanuts, corn, and potatoes. Brown’s parents taught him the value of self-sufficiency and though they were poor by most standards, the family owned their home and had the means to support themselves through the efforts of their labor. That was an important lesson to Brown that he never forgot. In 1939, at the age of 17, Robert Brown took a sabbatical from school to work with the Talladega Alabama Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), where he earned $30 per month. He also received free medical care, food, clothing, and access to a job training program. While the vast majority of African Americans throughout the South were unable to benefit from New Deal Programs during the Great Depression, Brown and thousands of African American youths were able to contribute to their households during this difficult period.

The two of the biggest influences on Brown’s civil rights activism were his experience with New Deal economic programs and his military service during World War II. Brown was drafted in 1942 and assigned to the 389th Combat Engineer Regiment that primarily functioned to deactivate landmines. After basic and advanced training at Camp Shanks, New York, Brown’s unit sailed to Glasco, Scotland, and then traveled to Bristol, England. In England, the Regiment deactivated live landmines in preparation for the invasion of France, Operation Overlord. Brown’s experience during the D-Day invasion was nothing short of transformative. Brown remarked, “During the D-Day invasion, no one can describe what went on. If they try and tell you, they weren’t there! We went in on LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) – the tide was lower than expected and boats would get caught up on three pronged spikes, and there was wire…I can see that gate open on the boat…when it opened, some of them didn’t come out. The Germans had machine guns aimed into those boats. When we go out the water was up to here! – pointing to his neck! The Germans had been there so long they were dug in with hydraulic lifts from bunkers.” He further added, “When we got to the hedges—If we advanced 100 or 200 yards a day it was good. It was like a checkerboard where the French grew grapes. There were human bodies – bloated – everywhere – we couldn’t pick them up.” Months later, Brown and his unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge and Ardennes-Alsace offensive from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945.

Though Robert Brown’s combat experiences had a lasting and traumatic impact on him personally, he later credits those experiences as preparing him for his role as a fearless civil rights activist and local Black leader in the deep South. Brown stated, “Combat stress is so much greater. It is one of the things I think that gave me courage because of the hell that I had seen.” Like many other African American military veterans that were Civil Rights leaders, Brown believed in the philosophy of armed self-defense activism. He respected Martin Luther King Jr. and sympathized with the civil rights strategy of non-violence, but Brown was not a pacifist and after receiving death threats began carrying a .45 caliber pistol similar to the one he used during World War II. To him, there was nothing more important than the safety of his family and his right to demand more from a racially unjust political system in Alabama.

Throughout Robert Brown’s remarkable career as a servant leader, educator, and civil rights activist, Brown championed the promotion of educational and economic opportunities for African Americans in Alabama, as well as voter and citizenship rights. He began his professional career as a school teacher and later went on to serve as a chemistry instructor at Livingston State College (later University of West Alabama) located in Sumter County. There, he became a team leader for the “Great Society” program, Alabama Teacher Corps, (similar to today’s AmeriCorps), designed to train teachers to serve populations that were “regulated to second-class citizenship” throughout rural areas in the nation. By 1980, as conservative forces gained control of the Greene County school board and managed to oust Brown as Superintendent, Brown retired to his family farm like a modern-day Cincinnatus, only to return to public service as a county registrar ensuring that African Americans have the right to vote as any other citizen. Under his leadership and watchful eye in 1984, 87 percent of the mostly black population in Greene County turned out to vote for the first time.

Robert Brown
Robert Brown in his home, 2012.

Marcus S. Cox, PhD

Marcus S. Cox serves as Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Fayetteville State University. He earned an undergradu...
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