Robert J. Brown is fighting mad.
Last month, during a Republican National Committee luncheon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Brown lambasted Washington leaders for cuts to programs that help minorities, including some he helped create during his time as a special advisor to President Richard Nixon.
“When funding is cut, the thing that seems to get the worst hit is programs for Black people,” the 74-year-old told the AFRO.
“Most of the offices for Minority Business Enterprise have been closed around the country,” he cited as evidence, and later added, “The Black colleges are getting the shaft right now because thousands of their students can’t get loans because of the restrictions our government put on our people.”
Flicking off any attempts to blame either of the main political parties, Brown said partisan disagreements have nothing to do with fighting for the African-American community.
“It is not always a fight between Republicans and Democrats; it’s a fight for Black folks and the needs of our communities,” he said. “We ought to be about the business of protecting the interests of Black people.”
Such non-partisan views are rare in Washington, but then the longtime Republican strategist and advisor has lived a rare life, experiencing courtside views to several historic moments in history. He was one of the few people to visit South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela in prison and provided consultation to the newly formed democratic government under Mandela’s leadership.
Born Feb. 26, 1935, Brown grew up in High Point, N.C., where he has spent most of his life. He was raised by his grandparents, primarily his grandmother, who was the daughter of a slave, a devoted Christian and a strict disciplinarian.
“She was a great influence on my life,” Brown said. “She always told me to study, work hard and don’t let anything get in your way.”
And that’s what he did, obtaining top grades at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Virginia Union University, even as he worked as a caddy and a waiter at country clubs and hotels to help pay the bills. The experience was a “revelation” for a boy who grew up poor, Brown said, because it “broadened my view of the world and what I knew about how people lived.”
In 1956, the then-21-year-old took a break from school to become a police officer and help support is grandparents, both of whom were ill. A couple of years later, he became a federal agent with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was posted in New York.
“I made some of the biggest cases they had during this time but I decided that I wanted to go home and start my own business,” Brown said. “My district supervisor told me I was a fool because my people (Blacks) could not even go into a restaurant (in the South) and that if I retired after 20 years, I’d still be young enough to do what I wanted to do.”
Still, it was a dream Brown could not defer. He and his wife moved back to High Point, and in 1960, he founded B&C Associates, a management consulting, marketing research and public relations firm. In the first seven months, Brown traversed the country by car, where he’d often sleep when hotels refused to accommodate Black guests. Then he landed his first client and the business began to grow, eventually listing several Fortune 500 companies in its portfolio, including Sara Lee Corp., General Motors Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Nissan Corp. and many more.
Around that same, Brown met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and they became “very close,” he said. Brown was appointed to the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and he helped raise money and organize events for the freedom struggle. It was a tumultuous time in the Civil Rights Movement and he was right in the thick of it.
“Those days were very difficult, but we had started making progress and then all of a sudden, Martin was killed. I went down to Memphis with Coretta to pick up his body…. That was a terrible time in my life.”
And the losses kept coming. Brown had started working with former U.S. Attorney General and then-U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who had been an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement. And then, RFK was assassinated in 1968.
Soon after, some friends who were working for Richard Nixon’s campaign for president asked Brown to consult on some issues. At first, he worked with them a couple of days a week, then it grew to seven days, until Nixon said he wanted Brown to be on hand, on his plane.
Brown went back to his business after the election, then was summoned to Washington to see the president-elect. When he arrived, Nixon introduced him as the man responsible for handling his administration’s policies on urban affairs, news to Brown.
“I just went ahead and smiled and thought, ‘I’m in a pickle here!’”
After the meet-and-greet however, Brown said he and Nixon had an hour-long talk about the needs of the urban community. He said the soon-to-be U.S. leader promised to give him full control and that Brown would answer only to him.
“He kept his word,” Brown said, citing some of the issues they tackled, such as affirmative action, minority business development, improving race relations in the military and increasing funding for HBCUs. Nixon also never commented on the fact that Brown was a Democrat, he said.
“It was more feasible at the time, with my business, to be a registered Democrat,” Brown said of his political affiliation at the time.
Within 18 months with the Nixon administration, however, Brown decided to join the GOP.
“I had met a lot of Republicans and felt like they were good people. My grandmother was Republican,” he said.
Perhaps it was this prosaic, open-minded approach to politics that allowed Brown to assess the changes in the political landscape over the years.
“Both parties have changed a great deal over the years,” he said. “The Democratic Party changed dramatically…When I was growing up, it was the Democrats that was the segregationist party, and they made no bones about it. Now they support a great many liberal ideals. And the Republican Party has become more conservative in the past few decades.”
He’s also witnessed the estrangement of Blacks from the GOP, but feels like Republicans may have also gotten a bad rap.
“In many instances you’ve had some people who did and said some things that were labeled as anti-Black. And to some extent, that’s been true, but that’s been true of all the parties, and it seems like people conveniently forget that.”
The unofficial advisor to GOP leaders and even some “friends” in the Democratic Party praised RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who has made outreach to African-American, Hispanic and other minority voters a chief concern of his leadership, especially after the GOP’s abysmal showing among those groups in the 2012 presidential election.
“Priebus has started reaching out and interfacing with all the [Black] groups. You have to interface with people and figure out what they need and want and come up with common strategies to solve those problems. That’s how you draw Blacks and other minorities back into the party,” Brown said.
As to the influence of the Tea Party on the GOP and how their extremely conservative views may be endangering the party’s integration goals, Brown said party leaders need to fight back.
“Those in the Tea Party have the right to believe what they want to believe. But don’t come in here and try to control things,” Brown said. “If we come up against conservative views that run [crossways of] our goals, we have to stand up and fight!”