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The Rev. Amos C. Brown: Our history is our present

A conversation with the NAACP leader and pastor

FILE - President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, stands with the Rev. Amos C. Brown during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, stands with the Rev. Amos C. Brown during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Illustration by Randy Glass

The Rev. Amos C. Brown is an icon of the American civil rights movement. As a young man he was arrested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at a lunch counter sit-in and belonged to the Freedom Riders, a group of activists who took bus trips through the South in 1961 to protest segregation.

Last year, Brown signed a joint op-ed with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who Brown has called “a brother from another mother and a brother from another faith tradition,” calling for “racial harmony” in the wake of the George Floyd killing and protests across the nation.

Brown has been a pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church since 1976 and has served as chairman of religious affairs for the NAACP. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Our nation is so divided right now, what can we do to find common ground with those who see the world differently than we do?

We need to seek engagement and social justice. The world would be a better place if we just follow the original tenets, teachings and examples of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what I learned in Mississippi. My parents knew that and that is the basis of everything I have done. Dr. King was no politician. He was a prophetic preacher who took the ethic of Jesus and connected it with the high-sounding principles of this nation. It comes down to following Jesus. Only Jesus. If we would only follow Jesus, we would not be in this situation.

What did you learn from Dr. King about standing for principle while still seeking goodwill and cooperation with those who see the world differently, and may even oppose the cause you’re engaged in?

The notion of personalism. It’s the idea that every human being is a person created in the image of God. And that regardless of how different they may be, they should be respected.

Last year, you joined with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to call on parents and families to be the first line of defense against hate and prejudice and discrimination. Why does it start with the family, in your opinion?

Because we are fashioned on the basis of what we meet in that nuclear family setting. Family is that primary network in which children begin to learn and to model those principles and ethical girds. The goals are the making of beloved community. That’s it. Tennyson said in “Ulysses,” “I am a part of all that I have met.” I am. I am a part of all that I have met. We become who we are based on our meetings in life.

It’s very unfortunate that too many children, too many persons in the early developmental stages of life meet hate, meet racist, biased attitudes. So if you want a better society, start with family and with the spiritual family.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, share a laugh with Reverend Theresa Dear, left, and Dr. Amos Brown, right, at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, share a laugh with Reverend Theresa Dear, left, and Dr. Amos Brown, right, at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

You’ve had a very challenging, interesting and rewarding life. Is there a moment that stands out for you as especially difficult or that was a learning moment?

I would say when I saw a magazine cover of the mutilated head of Emmett Till. That really shook me. And when I ran to Mr. Medgar Evers, who was the newly appointed field director of the NAACP and told him how upset I was over what these two white men did to Emmett Till, who was the same age as I was, 14. And this gentleman told me, “Don’t just be angry or upset, let’s be smart and strategic.”

That was a defining moment for me. And I organized the first NAACP youth council in the state of Mississippi in 1955. And then Mr. Evers brought me to San Francisco to the national convention and I was at that meeting in 1956. Last week of June, first of July where I first met Dr. Martin Luther King here in San Francisco. He spoke for Youth Night, that Wednesday night.

I will never forget that moment when he ended his speech with the words “I have a dream that the day will come when all of God’s children from bass black to treble white will be significant on the Constitution’s keyboard.”

What have you learned as a pastor in a very vibrant, diverse city about the role of faith and churches in pushing for change? What made you the effective pastor you are today?

I am a truth teller. A truth follower with respect and love. And I have always sought to be an instrument for community and bringing people together. E pluribus unum. One out of many. To get harmony — the best blends of great music have different notes that make an octave, a chord, a symphony of great music.

I am imperfect, but I always tried to be on the side of showing my works. Jesus’ brother James said that faith without works is dead, and I’ve tried to keep that tension and to be balanced in my thinking, balanced in my spirituality. It takes two wings for a bird to fly and two wings for an airplane to stay in the air. They need balance.

Is there a verse of scripture that speaks to you the most?

I think there are two of them. Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of the man or woman but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

And then naturally the book of Amos, it was also Dr. King’s favorite scripture. “That justice roll down like waters and righteousness in an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24. And I would say there is a third that was one of Jesus’ texts when he preached his first sermon. Luke 4:18: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor” … to give sight to the blind — you know the scripture.

Do you read a lot?

Oh yes. I think that reading gives us a sankofa experience. In Ghana there’s a bird called a Sankofa bird.

The bird looks backwards to move forward and the bird has an egg in its mouth, which symbolizes if you want to really go forward and do things, create possibilities, you’ve got to look backwards. Know history. Learn from the life experiences of other persons besides yourself. See a new perspective. It keeps you from being cynical and bitter. Our history is our present.

That’s an interesting point. Because it seems like you’ve seen a lot in your life that could have made you cynical and bitter. Have you consciously tried not to become cynical and bitter?

Oh yes. If you become cynical or bitter, it does more injury to the person who is bitter than the perpetrator. It’s destructive.

When I was in Ghana last year, a gentleman whose son my wife and I sponsor who’s now on his way to get his medical degree — he’s already got his master’s. And he’s a classical musician, too. Back at the age of 13, he had written three symphonies and two sonatas. I met him when I was there in Ghana for the 50th anniversary of the independence of Ghana in 2007. His father gave me this Sankofa cane. A walking cane. And the handle is a carving on this bird with the egg in his mouth and looking backwards to go forward.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Subscribe here.