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If you like Willie Brown's story, you might also like:
David Boies,
Ben Carson,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Daniel Inouye,
John Lewis,
Ralph Nader,
Rosa Parks,
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and Andrew Young

Willie Brown can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Willie Brown in the Achievement Curriculum section:
What is a Leader

Willie Brown's recommended reading: The Prince

Willie Brown also appears in the video:
Making a Better World: What is Your Responsibility to the Community?

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Willie Brown
Willie Brown
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Willie Brown Interview

Former Mayor of San Francisco

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Willie Brown

What was it like growing up in poor, rural, segregated Mineola, Texas?

Willie Brown: It was not a pleasant experience, I can tell you that. When I graduated from high school and went away to college in 1951, that was the first time I'd ever actually left the town. So I didn't have a whole lot to compare it to, except that I knew there was a better life somewhere.

There was a better life than worrying every day about your physical safety. There was a better life than being a vegetarian, and not by choice. That there was a better life than having only a pot-bellied stove in one room in a household. There was a better life other than outdoor plumbing. There was a better life than having a job of going a block away to get water and bring it back. There was a better life than taking a bath in the third use of the water that had been acquired. I knew that there had to be a better life. And there clearly had to be a better life than having no shoes. I knew there had to be a better life.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Willie Brown Interview Photo
It was a horror chamber. It got to be a little bit better, even in the horror chamber, when, at 10 or 11 years of age, I could actually produce for myself. I could work in the fields and make a couple of dollars a day. At 12 years of age, I could actually make six bucks a week shining shoes. Using those dollars, to buy the things that ordinary kids had, relieved the misery a bit, but only a tiny bit.

Who was important to you in those early years in Texas? Who inspired you, who influenced you, who did you look up to?

Willie Brown: In the early years of my life, my grandmother was the single most powerful force in existence by my little kid standards. She showed no fear of anything. In spite of the fact that we lived in a totally segregated community, she would not take anything off of white people.

They would mistreat her, or attempt to mistreat her, and she would stand up to them. She was an 80-year-old black woman and I suppose they had at least a little bit of respect for her life and the contributions she had made. I had great respect for her.

I had great, great respect for my mother. She seemed to have more interest in life than any other human being that I'd ever known, although she was only there on weekends. She lived in what we called "in service," up over somebody's garage in Dallas, Texas, working as their maid. But she would dutifully come home practically every weekend. She'd bring with her the excess food that she had cooked and not served to the other families. She'd bring home the ham, which was a way to get away from being a vegetarian. She would bring cakes and cookies that she had made. And obviously, she made them in excess, so she could bring them home. She'd also bring home the clothing of the kids from the house that she worked for, that they would give her.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

So she was my treat. She also had a great interest in what we kids were doing every day, what we were doing in school. She was very inspirational, although, on reflection, she was not even a high school graduate. She was very important to me.

Willie Brown Interview Photo
And then I had an uncle who literally defied description. He had had no education, never had a job, but seemingly owned everything in the world. He was a resident of San Francisco, California. He drove his car back once a year. He sent money to his mother, my grandmother, to help take of his sister's children. He had a lot of style and a lot of pizzazz about him. He was the hero of every little kid in Mineola. And of course, being my uncle, he was my hero. He also knew how to curse, and at the time that seemed important to me. There must have been a warrant out for him, or something, because he would never stay for more than three or four days, but he was very important to me.

That was probably the sum total of this little kid's collection of people. Although I did have access to things like the Houston Informer, which was a black newspaper, or the Kansas City Call, which was a black newspaper that was distributed in Mineola for five cents a copy, about once every two weeks. You would check that newspaper out and you'd read these stories about Harlem, and about black entertainers. But I couldn't really relate to them, because it just didn't seem like something I would ever be able to do. had no vision beyond Mineola. The people whom I respected and admired were pretty much restricted to my family members. I didn't have a whole lot of teachers that had anything going for them, that would warrant my admiring them.

What was your education like in that one-room schoolhouse?

Willie Brown Interview Photo
Willie Brown: It was really interesting, now that I reflect upon it. The teachers, although not well qualified, gave each of those students lots of confidence. They built lots of self-esteem, and they helped equip us for competition. They made me believe that there was absolutely nothing I could not do. I still have that. I just think I may be delayed in when I do it, but I know I can do it.

It was not unrealistic. For an example, everybody had to play some sports in this little school. I chose football. Clearly, I was much too small for football. I weighed 110 pounds or something. In addition thereto, there were no rules about how long you could play football. Kids who were no longer in high school were still playing football. The quarterback on our team was a seven-year veteran. I played quarterback behind him, which means I would never play, because he was so good, and so experienced.

But they gave me the confidence. I knew that I could never do what Theodore was doing, as long as Theodore was there doing it. But for whatever reason, in all other categories they made me believe I could. So, I got something out of that nothing education, and those used textbooks.

I used to have a great pride in my ability to recite narratives, to recite entire sections of books, and stories, and poems. And it was pointed out to me on occasion -- when I was in California, long out of high school -- a girlfriend of mine pointed out that I missed a whole three stanzas of "The Ancient Mariner." And I said, "Oh no, I did not. I know it verbatim." She said, "No, you missed three stanzas. I want to show you." She showed me the book, and then I realized that there was obviously a page missing in the book that I had committed to memory, where I got it. And so from that point on, I've never again recited any poetry, any narratives, for fear that my training in the text room materials that I had available to me may have created a gap, which means I would sound like I really didn't know what I was talking about.

So I dropped it. I know "If" backwards and forwards, but you never hear me doing it. I know "The Signifying Monkey" backwards and forwards, but you never hear me doing it, because I fear that I may miss some stanzas, by virtue of the fact that they were not there.

But being forced by these teachers to commit all of this to memory, gave me the confidence that I can take text material and at least regurgitate what I've read, just by virtue of the memory training that I went through.

I took geometry from my coach in high school. Charles Gregory knew nothing about mathematics. He knew even less about the geometry part of mathematics. And he said up front, "I didn't want to teach this class. They don't have anybody else to teach it. I need the job. I'm your coach, there's not much else I can do for you except to tell you, commit the geometry book to memory." And I did. I got an "A" in geometry, only for having committed the book to memory. Can I solve geometrical problems? Absolutely not. Can I quote Theory 109? Absolutely. But the memory training that Gregory gave me equipped me in my world of law. I can literally cite you, chapter and verse, subject matter that I was required to take as a freshman in law school, almost 40 years ago. Only because of that training that I got in that little school.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

It was a horrible little segregated school. It was not a second level education, it was a fourth or fifth level education, but there were pieces of it that represent lifelong building blocks for everything that I've done. Self-esteem, personal confidence in what I can do, a sense of optimism about problem solving, and memory training, is what I carry with me from that educational experience.

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This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:18 EDT
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