- Former member of the Black Panthers
- Ordered the murder of Black Panther bookkeeper Betty Van Patter
- Currently an icon of the political left; a highly sought-after speaker on American college campuses
Elaine Brown was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 2, 1943. Her father was a successful dentist who disowned her, and the girl did not meet him until she was thirteen. Miss Brown's mother enrolled her in elite schools and allowed her to take ballet and piano lessons. Elaine attended the Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice and the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She spent a brief stint as a student at Temple University and then found a job with the Philadelphia Electric Company.
From an early age, Elaine Brown had a series of adolescent and young-adult love affairs with black and Jewish middle- and upper-class men. In 1965 she left Philadelphia for Los Angeles, where she worked as a cocktail waitress. While there, she met Jay Kennedy, a social activist and a member of the American Comunist Party. Kennedy’s radical views were influential in leading Brown towards the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party (BPP) founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton.
In 1970 Brown joined her husband, BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen Cleaver in attending the World Conference of Anti-Imperialist Journalists, an eight-day event held in Communist North Korea. Representatives of Communist North Vietnam and China were also in attendance. Brown lauded the North Korea system as follows: “The people [in North Korea] who live on cooperative farms actually live at a much higher living standard than the average person in the United States who would be involved in farming work, or even a worker.... Each person, for example, is provided already with heath care and medical facilities, with child care, with housing, with some clothing allotment, with a free educational system up through what we would call high school and even college education.”
When Huey Newton in 1974 was indicted for murder and fled to Cuba, he appointed Brown to run the Party in his absence. An intense woman with a sadistic streak, Brown led the Panthers toward new brutalities. Her temperament made her well suited for Panther leadership: she was equally at ease moving between the world of the Panthers’ white liberal supporters and the violent world of the street. In her 1992 autobiography A Taste for Power, Brown’s proclivity for violence is given voice by such statements such as, “It is a sensuous thing to know that at one’s will an enemy can be struck down.”
During her tenure as leader of the Panthers, Brown was implicated (although never charged) in the murder of Betty Van Patter, a bookkeeper who had been hired to straighten out the ledgers of the Oakland Community Learning Center, an East Oakland ghetto school that was funded and staffed by Panther members and affiliates. When Ms. Van Patter discovered and pointed out some bookkeeping irregularities, she was kidnapped, raped, and bludgeoned to death. One day she simply “disappeared” -- and was not seen again until her mangled corpse washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay five weeks later. The details of this case are laid out in David Horowitz’s autobiography, Radical Son.
While the Panthers were being investigated for this murder, which according to Newton was ordered by Elaine Brown, Brown ran for the office of the Oakland City Council and garnered 44 percent of the vote. She ingratiated herself with California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown (no relation) and was appointed as a Democratic Party delegate. She used this influence to her advantage in awarding choice contracts to her allies.
Elaine Brown’s tenure with the Black Panthers ended in 1977 when Huey Newton returned from his self-imposed exile. Brown left the Panthers abruptly and headed for Paris, probably out of fear of Newton. In Paris, she underwent extensive psychiatric treatment and lived for several years with a wealthy French socialist. She wrote some songs glorifying the Panthers and a book called The Condemnation of Little B, in which she takes up the cause of a 13-year-old murderer, characterizing his crimes as the desperate actions of a child who has been victimized by societal injustices since his infancy.
Today Brown is an icon of the political left, a highly sought-after speaker on American college campuses where she is welcomed enthusiastically by professors and students alike. In 2004, for instance, the Emory College Ethics Center made her the featured speaker for Martin Luther King Week.