It disturbed some blacks when Benjamin Brown, the Georgia state politicians who joined the Carter bandwagon long before it left Plains and helped deliver the crucial black vote to Carter, ended up at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) instead of the White House.
To some political observers, the DNC, the second slot of deputy chairman, seemed so meager a reward for Brown, who had converted Andrew Young to the cause, giving the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations a gold peanut back at the Kansas City Mini-Convention in 1974. It was the credibility of Brown, Young and extras like Rev. Martin L. King Sr., who was enlisted by the other two after the "ethnic purity" flap, that brought blacks and a strong 94 per cent of their vote to Carter's side.
Long before the election results were known, Carter publicly declared his indebtedness to Young. But political friends of both men, such as Julian Bond, an 11th-hour Carter supporter, Vernon Jordan, the National Urban League director who's been an adviser to Carter, and Lonnie King, a '60s civil rights activist, as well as many political analyst and reporters thought that Brown was owed something also. In fact, when Young captured the media spotlight as the black confidante of Carter, he told friends that Brown's role had been just as important as his and he wished that Brown would get more attention.
Now, of the two strategists, Brown alone remains in Washington. And Brown insists that he's perfectly satisfied with his appointment to the DNC.
Yet the question continues to be asked, what kind of payoff was the deputy chairmanship of the DNC? Does Brown have any influences? Has he been shafted?
This much we know: Brown is the only black who attends a Wednesday morning meeting with Carter's close political operatives in Hamilton Jordan's office at the White House. Additionally he appears to have the confidence of Kenneth Curtis, the former Maine governor now at the helm of the DNC, who says warmly, "Ben and I are in constant contact with the White House. And we work closely together on all decisions."
So the Ben Brown tempest, the question of whether the black Georgian got the back hand of Jimmy Carter, coupled with disenchantment with the administration's appointments of blacks to policy-making jobs, comes from the outside, not from Brown himself.
The Ben Brown one meets in his office is confident, outgoing and bustling. He's 37 years old, very much a young Sammy Davis Jr., complete with electric smile, spare physique and flying, folksy expressions. But his biz is more political than show, with his horn-rimmed glasses, modest Afro parted on the left side and a fringe of a dark goatee.
He looks totally in control. And he's most often described by friends as lowkey and private. He has been known to cry in church when the "spirit" moved him but few things heat up up his emotions like politics. Initially he was particularly wrought up over the "ethnic purity" statement and a friend remembers Brown being despondent the night the story broke. "It's just too hot. I can't face those people. I feel like taking off my Carter buttons," he told a friend. But he rebounded after talking to Carter.
In a soft-spoken pragmatic way, Brown has always accepted what life dished out.As his friends from the student movements, like Julian Bond, became national personalities, Brown never showed any outward jealously. Say a long-time friend, "He doesn't think someone else's limelight is a bad reflection on him." But some fell the coolness might work against him. "Ben will walk away from a fight for himself," says a close friend. "But he's great at defending other people's interests."
Now, as he sits in his office, his eyes narrow when the question of his influence is broached. "I had the option of a 'Special Assistant to the President' title, the regular job given black advisers. But we wanted to get away from a symbolic position," says Brown. His voice firm and sure, with a soft lilt that discloses his southern and church origins. On his wall are photographs of Brown preaching from the pulpit and Brown with his wife, Lydia, and their two sons by a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I don't worry about my relationship with Jimmy Carter. I feel strong about it," says Brown. By his desk is a black-and-white photograph of the then-aspiring candidate and his adviser, Brown, caught in a moment of nose-to-nose consultation at the mini-convention. "If Jimmy wins, we all win," was one of Brown's frequent cries during the campaign. He clearly wanted to be on the inside.
Through the years Brown methodically move toward the Carter inner circle. In 1970, the year Carter ran for governor, Brown, the chairman of the black caucus in the Georgia House had committed himself to another candidate but had a close friend volunteer for Carter. "I sensed he was a winner. I saw the potential," Brown says now. In that election Carter received 7 per cent of the black vote and, when the presidential campaign was being mapped out, Brown was tapped to join. He obviously thought Carter's future was linked to his own.
Now Brown maintains that his influence is strong because the DNC will establish the re-election mechanisms. Speculations about why Brown went to the DNC include his open bragging about his connections to Carter, possibly peeving other egos, and the friction between established black politicians and Brown's independent campaign groups that now seem to be healed.
During the campaign Brown served as a deputy director and efforts to reach other associates from the campaign, Hamilton Jordan, Tim Kraft and Frank Moore, all now part of the White House staff, were unsuccessful. Only James King, advance man for the campaign, now a White House aide, replied he didn't know Brown well enough to discuss the situation.
But is the DNC enough of a future? Lonnie King, the "El Commandante" of the Atlanta student movement, the spokesman to Brown's logistician role, says no. "I think Ben should have had a milestone, leadership job in the administration," says King. "He jumped on the train before it was even assembled. If he was good enough to be at the DNC, then he's good enough to be at the White House. My expectations were higher."
Bond, the Georgia senator who campaigned vigorously for Sen. Morris Udall, says, "I would have liked to see Ben in the White House. In my view when the Democratic Party is in power, the DNC is powerless." But Bond, like many of Brown's long-time friends, hasn't mourned over the appointment with Brown. "We have all taken our cue from Ben. If he's happy, then we don't say much."
Vernon Jordan, a friend since their days at the Atlanta Butler Street YMCA, now the head of the National Urban League, says, "I'm satisfied (with Brown's appointment) because Ben is satisfied. Only Ben can determine the influence," Jordan, who has been part of the Atlanta connection of advisers to Carter, says, "They have a long way to go to satisfy the brothers and sisters"on appointments.
Ofield Dukes, the public relations executive who was an aide to then Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) during the Lyndon Johnson years, says flatly that Brown is in the right. "From the outside I see Brown's role as part of the Carter "political inner circle," to build a solid white and black constituency to support Carter's re-election."
Privately, very privately, Brown has been tough on his critics. Even belligerent. He told one friend, "I don't have the time to prove my credibility. People will find out in due time the scope of my power. If there are any more questions, 'ask the man."
All the disclaimers aside, all the pros and cons weighed, Brown looks like a man who's proving himself anew to his constituency. And part of the irony is that Brown simultaneously has become the Man, the black man, that folks are seeking out.
Brown is a man pursued by IOU-collectors; he's constantly pelted by letters, telegrams and phone calls.They all believed his promise of manna in heaven if Carter won. Well, they helped put the longshot into the White House, so now they are all asking, "Where's mine?"
Take the guy from Philadelphia, a rough street dude, survivor of some 30 years by his wits and bourdon, who finally was, yes, "born-again" in the campaign.
"He's one of the best sign-putter-uppers anywhere," says Brown. "He drank a lot before the campaign but we cleaned him up, politicized him, and he rode around in a car decorated with Carter signs." Now the Philly political convert calls regularly looking for his retribution.
Then there's the middle-aged minister from a large eastern city who organized a grass-roots conference for the Carter-Mondale ticket. When 50 instead of the promised 2,000 showed up for Brown's political spiel, there were no hard feelings from the then-deputy campaign director. The next rally was larger. After the election the minister gave Brown a testimonial, a bronze plaque and plenty of praise. Brown thought that was the last of the minister. One day he showed up, demanding a job. "Well, what do you want," he was asked. "Well, what do you have?" he asked cautiously, then boldly added, "an ambassador post."
Some people take the slow route of the mail in letters that at times rumble with the language of the rejected and lovelorn. "Dear Ben, I feel I have been abused," wroted a California woman who had manged a ward office.
What makes it bad is that Brown feels deeply a sense of moral obligation to those who gave their time for the campaign. "How much times can I say, 'It takes time, the government is slow"'" asks Brown, a little uncomfortable that he's beginning to sound impersonal.
What makes it worse is that the requests aren't going to lighten up. In last week's "Jet," the black weekly magazine, the following item appeared: "Interested in working for President Carter? . . . Ben Brown is serving as a back-up source, supplying resumes to key Cabinet members and agency heads."
But the people who drive Brown supper crazy are the name-droppers. Hinting at their Carter contacts, they start their rap, "I know Ruth Stapleton . . ."
It's early in the morning. A senior citizen group has dropped off a citation. Brown takes off the navy jacket to his suit, lights a Kool, then seconds later snuffs it out to answer a telephone call from Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. When he sits down, his eyes are fixed on the DNC-related folders on his desk and his voice croaks from constant talking, "The pressures are staggering. You can't ignore anyone who thinks the Carter administration owes them something. You tell people these processes take time. But you can only say that so long."
It's time - hey, Ben - to sing one of those tension-relieving spirituals you used to lead the civil rights meetings with. How about a chorus of "Don't Let Nobody Turn You around," or, maybe "Guide My Feet, While I Run This Race."
No matter what the arena - from the political microscosm of the Y leadership clubs to the civil rights movement to politics, Ben Brown has always shared the front lines, frequently playing the moderator.
Though Brown was raised in Montezuma, Ga., a farming community 40 miles northeast of Plains, it was the Atlanta of his teen, college and political years that pushed him into the spotlight.
One of five children, Brown's mother, Nettie, had devoted her spare time to the church, and his father, General Lee Brown, a country embalmer, moved to Atlanta for better opportunities and spent 35 years as a railway freight handler.
At the Butler Street Y, where Brown got his first part-time job, as ajanitor, he learned "how the world at large worked. I learned how to work with people with my own age." From the time he joined the Y youth group, Brown was president of almost every group he joined. At Clark College, he became president of the student government, and, therefore, one of the leaders of the student movement that eventually led to major desegregation in Atlanta.
When the students would gather for a march or rally outside Paschal's Restaurant, a mecca like 14th and U Streets used to be, Brown would work the middle between the direct action group and the cautionary group. "He played the valuable role of quiet conciliator," says Herschelle Sullivan Calenor, another leader, now a staff consultant to the House Subcommittee on Africa. Because of his moderate stance, Brown was the student the adult advisers took along to explain the boycott rationale to other community groups.
When pressed Brown will bring out the article Look magazine did on him in 1961. In one picture Brown and some other students are trying towels on their heads and the caption reads: "They are jokingly contemplatingly a new tactic. Can the Negroes pass as Indian exchange students." In another part Ben Brown's father says, "The children are doing God's works."
From his own brushes with the law in the early 1960s, Brown decided "the laws were just working against me, so I better learn how to change them," and entered Howard Law School. He never passed the bar, entering politics instead. In 1965, at age 25, he was one of eight blacks elected to the Georgia House. His first speech concerned the state's refusal to seat his friend, Julian Bond, because of Bond's anti-Vietnam War stance.
In 1968 Brown was one of the people who filed the challenge with the Democratic National Committee to the regular Georgia Democrats. Later at the party's convention, others, like Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, seized the issue for their own cause. Again, Brown was content to assume the backstage role.
Louis Martin, the Chicago newspaper executive who was the Ben Brown of the Kennedy and Johnson White House, says the DNC deputy chairmanship can be built into a powerful base. He did it. At the top of Martin's long list of accomplishments was the suggestion of Thurgood Marshall's name to Lyndon Johnson for the Supreme Court.
"The key is accessibility. You've got to have the man's ear," Martin said recently. "It's time to leave whe they don't call you back."
In answer to that challenge, Brown says, "I see Jimmy Carter when I have to. I speak frankly. I believe I have his trust and confidence."
His goal at the DNC, says Brown, is daily involvement in the "organic side of politics," building networks, bolstering up the state structure and, in broad terms, expanding the base of the Democratic Party. "The DNC is a vehicle for getting the re-election in order. And that's my strong point, constructing those links."
In the last election, Brown, who was out of his district campaigning for Carter, received 97 per cent of the vote.He's a political animal and friends hope that he will use the DNC term as a base for himself. Brown wouldn't admit that but instead has tried to convince people that after eight years of a Carter White House his political career will be over.
"I'll be 45 years old. Once I really wanted to be secretary of the state of Georgia. But no more," he says. "Now I think it's important that when blacks get into positions of influence they see others come alone. I would like to teach in a black college somewhere in the South." He's challenged; his answer doesn't ring true. He laughs. "Honest," he says.