Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Elaine Brown wrote A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story (1993) about her experience as a member and leader of the Black Panthers.
Born in the ghettos of North Philadelphia, Elaine Brown's life is the story of a poor black woman who managed to break the chains of a prejudiced society to rise as a powerful leader. Her life has been dedicated to the values of equality, justice, and pride, which she continues to fight for today. Best known for her appointment as the first and only woman leader of the Black Panthers and the volatile life that followed, Elaine Brown is also an accomplished writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter. Her autobiography, A Taste of Power (1993), offers a window into the violent, formative years of one of the most militant organizations of the American Civil Rights movement.
Elaine Brown's story, which began in the Philadelphia slums, is one of resilience, strength, danger, struggle, and power. Born on March 2, 1943, Elaine Brown was the only child of Dorothy, a blue-collar factory worker, and her lover, a black dentist who wielded considerable social influence in Philadelphia and who eventually rejected her. Brown's life was between two worlds; on one side, an absent father and the harsh ghetto, and on the other, the affluent predominately whiteschools in which she excelled. Determined to provide for a better life, Dorothy scrimped and saved in order to enroll her daughter in the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, where Brown wrote her earliest songs. It was the catharsis of songwriting that carried her through beatings and a near-rape by an unknown perpetrator. Brown's childhood as a black girl in a predominantly white and a predominantly male society molded her life-long crusade for equality.
After a brief period of study at Temple University, a discontented Brown moved to Los Angeles where she joined the Civil Rights movement and dedicated herself to improving the lives of disenfranchised people across the country. During those bloody times, following a long series of illustrious love affairs with powerful white men, Brown began the path that would lead her up the ranks of one of the most notorious organizations in American history—the Black Panthers.
Founded in October 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton andBobby Seale, the organization's vision was to provide for the basic human rights they claimed had been denied blacks since slavery. Through her involvement with the Panthers, Brown worked closely with legendary leaders Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, George Jackson, and Ray Hewitt Masai (who fathered her only child). While still with the Black Panthers, Brown traveled to North Korea and Vietnam where she lectured and debated Marxist theory and also ran for political office. As the Black Panther Party expanded from its small Oakland nucleus to become a dominant national organization, Brown met the man who would be her greatest love, and ultimately her greatest nemesis: Huey Newton.
In 1974, Newton, upon fleeing to Cuba to escape murder charges, appointed Brown as the first and only woman in history to lead a black resistance movement, first as Defense Minister and later as Chairman. It was under Brown's leadership that the Black Panthers quickly gained influence in their fight for the cause, as they phrased it, of "Black urban ghetto-colonies" throughout the nation. As a woman leader in a "volatile male-dominated inner-core of sexist paramilitaries," as she described the Panthers in her autobiography, Brown struggled to ensure the Party's survival. She worked to shatter the sexist barriers within her own party while fighting for civil rights in the world around her—and succeeded. Notwithstanding volatile and bloody conditions, internal conflict, and FBI threats, Brown's leadership produced many accomplishments. Under her direction, the Panthers built 300 houses for displaced people, elected the first black mayor of Oakland, CA, and successfully resisted police brutality. The Black Panthers also established the Free Breakfast for Children Program, free health clinics, liberation schools, and much more. Despite surviving years of brutal male chauvinism and somehow winning the loyalty of the Party's angry men, Brown fled in 1977, upon the return of the estranged Huey Newton.
Decades after her unprecedented leadership in both women's and civil rights, Brown has continued to fight for downtrodden Americans. In addition to her autobiography, (A Taste of Power (1993), deemed shocking by many,) written about her experience with the Black Panthers, Brown has most recently written a book entitled New Age Racism and the Condemnation of Little B (2002), about the true story of Michael "Little B" Lewis, a 14-year-old boy sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime Brown believes he did not commit. She is also a founder of Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice (MAJJ), an organization dedicated to freeing unfairly incarcerated children, and Vice President of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, which, according to the website, "effects progressive social change by teaching practical lessons of community service." Brown is president of a nonprofit education corporation, Fields of Flowers, based in Georgia, which develops education centers for poor children of all races. She is also the Director of Political Affairs for the National Alliance of Prison Reform, Inc.In addition to being an activist, writer, and lecturer, Elaine Brown has produced two albums of original songs, Seize the Time (Vanguard Records) (1969) and Until We're Free (Motown) (1973). One of her songs, The Fugitives, served as the Black Panther Anthem and is now featured on a new Black Panther Records label (2002).
Today, Brown lectures around the country, maintaining the values of the Panthers' original visions. She continues to write literature and music and speaks to the younger generation of her part in history as a fighter for women's and civil rights.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
New Age Racism and the Condemnation of Little B. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Hope in the Holler: A Womanist Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.