FEBRUARY 10, 1989

Outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk Jr., left, holds up the hand of Ron Brown, the new chairman, after his appointment to the post in Washington, Feb. 10, 1989. Credit: AP Photo/Barry Thumma

Ron Brown was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, becoming the first Black American to lead a major political party in U.S. history.

Brown was a descendant of Mississippi Reconstruction lawmaker Eugene B. Welborne, who had to flee the state to avoid being killed. He and his brother disguised themselves as Confederate soldiers and “carried it off because of their fair coloring,” Brown recalled.

He grew up in the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, which his father managed. In the hotel, he bumped into the likes of boxer Joe Louis and actor Paul Robeson and enjoyed the world-class entertainment available at the nearby Apollo Theater.

The son of Howard University graduates, his parents sent him to prep schools, and he became the only Black student in the freshman class at Middlebury College in Vermont. White classmates from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity welcomed him, but the national organization objected because it barred Blacks. Fellow fraternity members backed him, leading to the chapter’s expulsion by the national chapter.

Brown then became a trustee at the mostly white school. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he earned a law degree, became a social worker and joined the National Urban League before becoming the first Black attorney at a high-powered Washington law firm. At first glance, Brown seemed unlikely to become chairman. He had just managed Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign for president. “I promise you,” he told the Washington Post, “my chairmanship will not be about race; it will be about the races we win.”

Under his leadership, Democrats saw the election of a Black governor in Virginia and a Black mayor in New York City. Democrats also picked up four congressional seats in special elections. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in 16 years, and he appointed Brown as Secretary of Commerce.

Three years later, Brown was on an official trade mission when he died in a plane crash in Croatia. Clinton praised Brown, calling the secretary “one of the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.