Elaine Brown was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 2, 1943. Her father was a successful dentist who never publicly acknowledged the girl as his daughter. And Elaine’s mother, a dress-factory worker, enrolled her in elite schools and allowed her to take ballet and piano lessons. After attending the Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, Brown spent a brief time (less than two semesters) as a student at Temple University in 1961 and then took a job with the Philadelphia Electric Company.
Around that time, Brown met Jay Kennedy, a married white man who was a fiction writer, social activist, and American Communist Party member. The two became lovers, and Kennedy’s radical views were influential in leading Brown towards the Black Power Movement. Before long, Brown began working for the radical newspaper Harambee, a Swahili word meaning “Let’s Pull Together.”
In the early spring of 1968, Brown attended her first meeting of the Black Panther Party (BPP), a violent, revolutionary, pro-Marxist organization. She joined BPP’s Los Angeles chapter and quickly moved up in its ranks.
Brown’s commitment to the Panthers was uncompromising. In an interview two decades later, she reflected upon her years with BPP and stated that the Panthers viewed themselves as “a vanguard army” whose mission was “to introduce socialist revolution into the United States of America”; that they were convinced that this revolution “would require armed violence and armed force,” which “we were armed to do”; that the Panthers “borrowed” their core ideals “from all revolutionary, socialist revolutionary organizations throughout the world”; and that BPP sought to topple the “system of capitalism in the United States and ultimately of imperialism,” which was responsible for the “oppression” that “people of color” and other “disenfranchised” groups were suffering. Moreover, in her 1992 autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Brown recalled BPP members’ belief that they “had the ability to become a kind of black version of the Mafia” that could “take what we want from the Establishment.”
In 1970 Brown joined 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. At this Conference, Brown lauded the North Korean system as follows: “The people 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.”
In 1971 Brown became editor of the BPP newspaper, The Black Panther, and was soon elected as the Panther Central Committee’s first female member. BPP Chairman Huey Newton was grooming Brown to be one of his closest lieutenants.
On orders from Newton in 1973, Brown ran for a seat on Oakland’s city council while fellow Panther Bobby Seale ran for mayor; both campaigns were unsuccessful.
In 1974 Newton shot and killed a prostitute in Oakland, causing local pimps to put a bounty on his head. Thus, Newton jumped bail and fled to Havana, Cuba to avoid both assassination by his peers and prosecution by legal authorities. To run BPP in his absence, Newton appointed Elaine Brown as the Party’s new Chairwoman. Brown kept this position for the next three years, during which time she stayed in regular phone contact with Newton and coordinated the organization’s activities.
Brown’s temperament made her well suited for BPP leadership. Like her fellow Panthers, who habitually referred to Martin Luther King as “Martin Luther Coon,” Brown detested King and his calls for nonviolence. An intense woman with a dark sadistic streak, she led BPP toward new and ever-greater brutalities. For example, Brown presided over numerous bull whippings of disobedient Party members. In her aforementioned autobiography, she gave voice to her proclivity for violence with such statements as: “It is a sensuous thing to know that at one’s will an enemy can be struck down …”
Also during her three-year tenure as BPP Chairwoman, Brown was implicated (although never charged) in the murder of Betty Van Patter, a white 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 Mrs. 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.
In the mid-1970s Brown became allied politically with California’s then-secretary of state, Democrat Jerry Brown (no relation). Aaron Dixon, who served as Elaine Brown’s bodyguard and was a BPP “Captain,” recalls how Elaine and the Panthers gained significant political power in 1974:
“Jerry Brown came to us and asked us to support his bid for governor for the state of California. And he had some close relationships with party members in L.A., and Elaine Brown knew him, so we said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, we’ll support you. We’ll work in your campaign.’ So, lo and behold, he becomes the governor. [Then] Elaine is spending a lot of time in the governor’s office, meeting with him and Tony Kline, who is the head legal person in the state of California and had also worked [as an attorney] with the [BPP] in Southern California. And Elaine is cultivating this relationship. Jerry Brown calls Elaine up and says, ‘I have six judgeships that I want to fill in Oakland. Can you help me?’ She says, ‘Yes, I’ll get back with you with the names.’ She gives him the names of six black attorneys, and they all become judges…. And so, you could say that we had some control of the judiciary in Oakland because of this. And those lawyers knew why they became judges, is because of the Black Panther Party. Elaine made sure they knew that. So, you know, damn! We’re getting some power here.”
In her 1992 autobiography, Elaine Brown discusses the role that BPP lawyer Tony Kline had played in Jerry Brown’s first gubernatorial administration: “For our party an invaluable asset fell into place with Brown’s first act as governor. Brown named Tony Kline his appointments secretary. Kline’s role was to structure the apparatus by which the governor would appoint his Cabinet. This made him one of the most politically influential men in the state. Up until that moment, Tony Kline had been a lawyer for the Black Panther Party.”
Also in her autobiography, Brown recounts how she visited the exiled Huey Newton in Cuba and told him the following: “[Kline] appoints judges, among other things. Titularly, he’s the legal affairs secretary to the governor, which means he coordinates all the legal matters that fall under the governor’s direct jurisdiction. So, he appoints judges and represents the state in things like extradition, and in relations with other states and the federal government. He also deals with other legal departments of the state…. Every vacancy in the state is being filled with black men, women, or somebody of color. White men need not apply, unless they’re like Tony’s first appointment to the municipal court bench in Oakland, Rod Duncan, who’s married to a black woman and who endorsed me for City Council.”
In 1975 Elaine Brown made a second run for a seat in the Oakland city council. Though she lost, she garnered an impressive 44 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, she continued to ingratiate herself with Governor Jerry Brown. When the latter ran for U.S. President in 1976, Elaine Brown was one of his delegates at the Democratic National Convention. That same year, BPP ran Lionel Wilson for mayor of Oakland. The governor’s endorsement helped Wilson win the general election, and Jerry Brown stood by Wilson’s side during his victory speech.
Elaine Brown’s tenure with the Black Panthers ended in 1977 when Huey Newton was acquitted of his murder charges and returned from his self-imposed exile. At that point, 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.
In 1996 Brown moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she established Field of Flowers, a nonprofit organization that focused on the education of poor children. Brown also co-founded Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice (1997) and the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform (2002).
In March 2007 Brown announced her candidacy for the Green Party nomination for U.S. President. But nine months later she made an abrupt about-face, saying: “As of today, I am no longer a candidate for the Green Party nomination for president of the United States, and I hereby resign from all affiliation with the Green Party. I believe the leadership of the Green Party of the United States has been seized by neo-liberal men who entrench the Party in internecine antagonisms so as to compromise its stated principles and frustrate its electoral and other goals…. [T]he Green Party, while advocating ‘diversity,’ remains dominated by whites. Indeed, the Party is able to count less blacks, browns and natives in its membership than our national population percentages and certainly less than the Democrats themselves.”
In 2010, Brown served as a close adviser to inmates in several Georgia prisons who used contraband cellphones to organize a strike demanding better prison conditions.
Brown continues to be an icon of the political left and a highly sought-after speaker on American college campuses, where she is routinely welcomed with great enthusiasm by professors and students alike.
For additional information on Elaine Brown, click here.
Further Reading: Radical Son (by David Horowitz, The Free Press, 1997); “Eliane Brown” (Encyclopedia.com, Spartacus, Blackpast.org); “Interview with Elaine Brown” (Washington University Digital Gateway Texts, 10-14-1988); “Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther Party in North Korea” (Blackbird Press News, 4-20-2013); “The Black Power Movement’s Fifty-Year Love Affair with North Korea” (by Lee Stranahan, 4-9-2016); “California Primary Protests Evoke Jerry Brown’s Black Panther Ties” (by Lee Stranahan, 5-24-2016); “Elaine Brown Withdraws from Green Party Presidential Race” (Polizeros.com, 12-31-2007); “Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to Coordinate Protest” (NY Times, 12-12-2010).