To understand why Rev. Amos Brown brings history into just about every breath he takes, look to the Sankofa bird.
It’s a mystic symbol used by the Akan people of Ghana, depicting a bird looking back with an egg in its mouth to symbolize a bright future and better days, the Third Baptist Church pastor told the Examiner.
“You can’t go forward, you can’t have a brighter day unless you know your history and human history,” said Brown, president of San Francisco’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. “If you don’t, you will repeat the mistakes of history. That’s why I’m always citing, to put it in its context in order to go forward.”
Brown, living history himself, has a lot of context to draw from as a civil rights leader who turned 80 years old on Saturday.
He grew up in Jackson, Miss., the same state where his great, great grandfather was born enslaved. Brown was born the same year as 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally kidnapped and murdered over false allegations.
Brown later started the first NAACP youth council in 1955, and attended the group’s conference in San Francisco in 1956. It was there that he met civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, which he called a “formative experience.”
“He was bigger than life because of his commitment to social justice,” Brown said. “I’ve been a child of the civil rights movement since I was 14 years old.”
Brown left for Morehouse College, a historically black college and university in Atlanta, and became one of eight students in the only class that King would ever teach. He was later arrested with King at a lunch counter sit-in in 1961 and joined the Freedom Riders who protested segregation in the South.
He graduated from Morehouse in 1964, earned a master of divinity and doctor of ministry, then came to San Francisco in 1976 to the Third Baptist Church.
In his time as a San Francisco leader, which included a stint on the Board of Supervisors in the late 1990s, Brown has been heavily involved in youth enrichment and wellbeing, both in San Francisco and Africa. The local NAACP has sued for equitable education, leading to a 1983 federal consent decree to desegregate public schools that ended in the 1990s after demographics shifted and Chinese American families sued over race-based admissions.
He remains active in education, most recently throwing his weight behind a community effort to instill cultural changes at Lowell High School.
“The majority culture should understand that a Black person does not dumb down the standards,” Brown said. “Give people a chance, let them prove themselves. That’s what must be done, that’s all we’re asking for.”
Brown has long pushed for reparations, which Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton established an advisory committee for last year.
But despite all the battles, all the work, and better representation, Brown said he still doesn’t see true change, despite the presence of Black leaders in the form of Mayor London Breed, former Mayor Willie Brown, and Walton.
“It’s not translated into any action to make sure Blacks have their fair share of housing, of jobs, their fair share of education and even the fair share of a cultural enclave,” Brown said. “When I came in 1976, the same problems were back there then that are here today. That’s not progress at all.”
Walton said he agrees. Progress has been made on Black leadership, but equity is far away when you look at opportunities, incarceration and police brutality, he said.
Brown has been a presence in Walton’s San Francisco upbringing for as long as he can remember. Brown christened him as a 1-year-old, and would later serve as a mentor, as he does for many Black community members.
“If it was not for people like Rev. Brown, I would not be able to be in my role today,” Walton said. “His legacy should be known as someone who’s been fighting the civil rights fight really since its inception. Being 80 years old, there are no signs of him wanting to stop.”
While Walton and then-School Board President Stevon Cook in 2019 called for Brown to step down from NAACP leadership after the pastor accused the Board of Supervisors of “racist politics,” they later reconciled.
“Sometimes you have to go in opposite directions before you learn it’s better to work together,” Walton said. “You’re going to disagree. You just work together and work past it.”
Breed, who recorded a video for a virtual birthday celebration on Saturday, thanked Brown on behalf of San Francisco for everything he’s done.
“His work has paved the way for this current moment, where we are seeing a historic rise in activism to create a more equitable and just society; made San Francisco a leader in the fight for racial and economic justice; and will empower future generations to continue in these efforts,” Breed said in a statement. “His legacy of fighting for inclusion, acceptance and equal rights represents San Francisco’s values at their finest.”
Brown said he is currently concerned with collective racial healing in the wake of attacks on Asian Americans that have garnered mass attention in recent weeks. He said he’s extended an invitation to talk to Asian American community leaders, as he has in the past.
“We have the obligation…for all our children to be able to say, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud, I’m brown and I’m sound, I’m yellow and I’m mellow, I’m white and I’m alright, I’m a woman and I’m wise, I’m gay and I’m godly, I’m straight and I’m sensible, I’m an immigrant and I’m industrious,’” Brown said.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a classic speech he’s drawn from for more than 25 years. Brown calls it “community property” that others have borrowed from to push inclusion in America.
As for what he wants to be remembered for, Brown said he has fought for the advancement of all marginalized groups for decades.
“I’ve always been fair and persistent,” Brown said. “I didn’t just stand up for Black rights, I stood up for gay rights…I also stood for women’s rights being protected. I wanna be remembered for that. I’ve never been scared by speaking my mind and doing it respectfully.”