UWF's MyStory Griot Project: Steve Brown
The University of West Florida College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CASSH) is looking ahead to the spring semester and asking members of the campus community to share their personal stories dealing with race, ethnicity and belonging for UWF’s MyStory Griot Project.
Today, WUWF is highlighting an earlier entry. It’s a story of “Desegregation in the South” — and one earth-shattering day in history — submitted by the Dean of CASSH.
“My name is Steve Brown and this is 'My Story,'” began Brown, who has served as dean of CASSH since coming to UWF eight years ago from Mississippi State University. Previously, he held similar positions at Emporia State in Kansas and at the University of Mississippi. The Arkansas State graduate is a native of a small town in Arkansas, who came of age in the racially turbulent 1960s.
“Growing up in the South during that period of desegregation, I was vaguely aware of tensions throughout the nation. But, all those problems seemed to be a world away.”
Brown’s family lived in the country, on the outskirts of town. He was raised with his brother to accept and be respectful to everyone, with the expectation that they become educated, contributing members of society. Any sort of bias or discrimination, they were told, would probably just distract from those goals.
During his formative years, he says he was aware of a number of other students, who were older; most of them were in high school. He recalls that all of them lived in town and experienced a pretty rough upbringing.
“They were loud, boisterous, and probably academically challenged, everything I had been taught not to be,” Brown stated. “On the other hand, they also generally possessed the two things that in my view made them semi-deities: They had cars and they had girlfriends, and I had neither of those and the prospects were bleak.”
In short, he knew he wasn’t supposed to admire those guys, but he couldn’t help wanting some of what they had.
One thing Brown did have as a youngster was a love of music, which flourished with his participation in some choral music ensembles.
One particular performance has stuck with him for more than 50 years.
He vividly recalls the evening of April 4, 1968, as he gathered for a spring concert with other singers from their school, which was about 40 miles from Memphis, Tennessee.
“Waiting to warm up and standing around with other students, I heard that door burst open and one of those tough high-school guys yelled across the room to a friend, “The son of a bitch is dead!”
Newsreel from the CBS News archives features Walter Cronkite announcing the breaking news, “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.”
“It didn’t take long for us all of us to understand that Dr. King had been shot and killed just a little ways from where we stood,” he recalled, noting that even kids as young as he was understood the implication.
“Then in the next few days, we watched on television — with a mixture of horror and fear — as rioting overtook Memphis and many other cities around the country,” explained Brown.
Curfews were in place and the National Guard was activated in nearby Memphis.
“We didn’t know if it would get to our town and really didn’t know how we were supposed to react,” he remembered.
Ultimately, he says all of the commotion ended, students returned to their studies, and most of the nation returned to what he refers to as a “stunned and uncertain” pattern.
“But, that single phrase has stuck with me throughout the decades, ‘the son of a bitch is dead.’”
According to Brown, he knew — as soon as he heard it — that he was supposed to discount that phrase that was being thrown around by that tough, older student he described as semi-literate and really ignorant.
Decades later, Brown thought of this person when he saw his obituary in his hometown newspaper.
“And, I had to wonder whether he had ever repented, whether he ever learned any differently, whether he died with the same sort of ignorance and same sort of bias, as horribly warped as he was so long ago.” he said. “Truthfully, I don’t know.”
What he does know is that the impact of that night has had an ongoing influence on his personal life and professional career, and he wonders, “How can we fail to recognize the implications of this and hundreds of other similar events through the last 50 years?”
“How we can ignore and turn away when fellow citizens are being abused and murdered, no matter what we think of their tactics or their motives, no matter how we question their views,” he asked.
Today, one might think of “Black Lives Matter.” More broadly, Brown says “All Lives Matter,” that all people are fellow human beings, all children of God, no less than he or anyone else.
“Our failure to speak amounts to nothing less than acquiescence. ‘The son of a bitch is dead.’ After 50 years, maybe, it’s time I said something.”
Dr. Steve Brown, dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CASSH), sharing his story of “Desegregation in the South” as part of UWF’s MyStory Griot Project.