Elaine Brown: Leader and Activist

Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

It is important to look back and examine the similarities and differences between the Black Power Movement of the past and the Black Lives Matter Movement of today, to see the important lessons learned and the goals that are still yet ahead of us in the quest for equality and justice. One of the most prominent organizations during the Black Power era was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. There were only a few figures who stood out or were as remembered from this movement as Elaine Brown. We recently came across a treasure trove of photographs in the RG 65 FBI Case File 157-3430 in the series Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957 – 1978 (NAID 1513564) that depict Elaine Brown during some of the highlights of her involvement in the Black Power Movement. To obtain a copy of this file, please contact our FOIA office.

Growing up in Philadelphia with a single mother, Elaine was very active as a child who participated in extracurricular music and arts programs while attending a private school. After graduating, she moved to Los Angles to attend the University of California where she met Jay Richard Kennedy, a music executive, who introduced her to the Black Power Movement. After their breakup, Brown began working for the radical newspaper Harambee. She attended her first Black Panther meeting after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

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Donald Harris, Henry Christian, Raymond Hewitt, Shirley Hewitt, Gwendolyn Goodloe, Ericka Huggins (Jenkins), and Elaine Brown (Case File #157-3430)

Elaine later joined the Black Panther Party and contributed to its outreach programs. Brown helped to establish the first Free Breakfast for Children Program in Los Angeles, Free Busing to Prisons Program and Free Legal Aid Program. She quickly rose up the ranks in the Party and became the editor of the Black Panther news publication in South Carolina.  In 1971, Brown replaced Eldridge Cleaver in the position of Minister of Information. Brown also continued her interest in musical arts by recording songs for the album Until We’re Free at the request of the Party’s Founder and Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton.

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Elaine Brown (Case File #157-3430)

In a controversial move Newton appointed Elaine Brown as the new leader of the Black Panther Party in his absence in 1974, after he fled persecution to Cuba. Despite challenges stemming from sexism among various members, she led the Party from 1974 until 1977. While leading the Party she contributed to the campaign of Lionel Wilson, who became Oakland’s first black mayor. She also worked to establish the Black Panther Party’s Liberation School. However after the return of Huey P. Newton, Elaine Brown stepped down from leadership and the Black Panther Party due to concerns regarding sexism and ensuing violence. Later in life, Elaine Brown continued her scholarship by writing and attending the Southwestern University of Law. She also began a brief campaign in the Green Party for presidential nomination in 2007, but later resigned. Presently, Brown lectures at colleges and universities, as well as at numerous conferences, while still maintaining her efforts as an activist.

Elaine Brown’s daughter Erika Brown-Abram will be joining us on October 19, 2016 for our special event Revolutionary Movements Then and Now: Black Power and Black Lives Matter as a guest panelist. She will participate in a discussion regarding the nuances of today’s Black Lives Matter Movement and how it is both similar and different to the Black Power Movement that her mother and so many other significant leaders helped to form.

This event will be livestreamed on YouTube, those in the DC area can register to attend in person here. Participate and follow the discussion by using #BlkPowerMatters throughout social media.

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