previous chapter
Chapter Seven— Jones United Methodist Church
next chapter

Chapter Seven—
Jones United Methodist Church

Lift every voice and sing 'Til earth and heaven ring Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Negro National Anthem, 1921

If Phillip Burton was the first pillar of Willie Brown's political career, his church was the second. Even before graduating from college, Brown rapidly rose in the hierarchy of Jones United Methodist Church, and that made him a leader in San Francisco's black community.

The Reverend Hamilton Boswell, pastor of Jones Methodist, had come to California from Texas a generation earlier. In 1919, when he was five years old, Boswell's family had settled in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He became a preacher and founded a congregation in Los Angeles. Boswell came north in 1947 and became the pastor of Jones Methodist, in the heart of the poorest black neighborhood of San Francisco. He keenly felt the poverty and injustice around him. The Fillmore was flooding with new arrivals every day. "The need was so great," he remembered. "Here were people making every possible adjustment that one makes—getting out of rooming houses and buying your home, finding a suitable place to do business, staying away from loan sharks. It was just what happens in a pioneering situation. They didn't come there in covered wagons and they weren't fighting tribes of people in the area, but San Francisco at that time was very cruel to people. They were exploited with exorbitant rents, everything that could possibly happen."[1]

The first time Boswell set eyes on him, Willie Brown was sitting in the church balcony. Boswell found Brown bright and charming and before long


made him the youth director.[2] He also hired him as janitor, giving him a few dollars for mopping floors and cleaning toilets to help him through school. Brown won a following at the church, and it would eventually provide him with a cadre of campaign workers. "There were hundreds of young people. He's always been very charismatic," Boswell remembered.[3] "His generational group was all reaching up like little flowers trying to break through the crust to get to the sunlight to grow. Everybody he was associated with was ambitious to do something, and they produced a crop of politicians, of lawyers, of doctors, of labor leaders—just a whole harvest."

Whether by chance or choice, Willie Brown could not have picked a better church to help propel him into politics. Jones Methodist Church, a boxy brick building with an ornate arched entryway, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in San Francisco. "The strongest factor in a black church is not so much the theology as it is what it makes with the community. I think this is what attracted Willie and all the people like him to Jones Methodist Church," said Boswell.[4]

The African Americans who migrated to San Francisco during World War II and in the years immediately following were in no mood to settle for the same subservient role they had fled. But many found themselves as social outcasts among older, settled blacks in San Francisco. Those who finally broke the entrenched political and social caste system were not native San Franciscans but migrants from the South. Their struggle was with both the white power structure and a timid black establishment. The new black leaders tended to be college educated, a few even from predominantly white universities. For the most part they came out of San Francisco's black churches and fraternal organizations.[5]

Boswell and other black ministers began talking about how to take political action. They formed a ministerial alliance to press for open housing and an end to racial discrimination in San Francisco. Boswell became a publicly vocal critic of housing discrimination, proclaiming in 1954 that "western racial segregation is a subtle contrivance. You are up to your neck before you become aware of its enclosure."[6]

But Willie Brown did not go to church just for the religion or the politically charged atmosphere. "We always had such beautiful young ladies around there. It wasn't great organ music or the great sermons, you know," Boswell recalled.[7] Brown remembered that joining the church was just one more thing he did to get himself established in San Francisco. "If you want to be a part of the scene and you want to be a part of things, you had to know everybody and they had to know you. And so I set out to make sure that they knew me and I knew them. And I did every wholesome thing that you could do to further that opportunity."[8]

Jones Methodist Church served as the meeting place for the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading civil rights organization in San Francisco. That made Jones Church


the epicenter of the civil rights movement in San Francisco. The NAACP was practically an extension of the black church. Boswell and other ministers served on the branch's board of directors and supported its activities from the pulpit. Over the course of the next decade, the San Francisco NAACP branch became a bitter battleground between militants and moderates. To the militants, the NAACP branch was nothing more than a social club. To the moderates, the reformers were dangerous radicals who risked the safety and well-being of the black community for ill-defined ideological goals. Willie Brown was up to his neck in every fight until the branch was finally split apart by the national headquarters in 1966.

While other politicians learned their skills in student government, Brown learned his in the internecine struggles within the NAACP. For Brown and the neighborhood where he lived, the stakes were larger than those of a college campus. As they viewed it, freedom itself was on the line. The game was rough, intense, and not always by the rules, and the experience shaped Willie Brown's approach to politics in the wider world.

Brown's first political speech was at an NAACP meeting in the fall of 1952, and he used the occasion to promote the presidential candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.[9] Brown's involvement in the NAACP was a natural step for him both in his role as a church leader and in his budding legal career. Nationally, the NAACP was breaking apart the legal underpinnings of segregation with a series of groundbreaking lawsuits engineered by its legendary general counsel, Thurgood Marshall.

However, unlike a number of young, college-educated blacks of the era, Brown was not inspired to go into law by such exploits. Rather, Brown's course into the law was more circuitous. "I didn't really zero in on law," he said.[10] San Francisco State in those years was primarily a teachers college, and he could easily have ended up as a teacher at a black elementary or high school. As he approached graduation[11] from San Francisco State with a general studies major in spring 1955, his only certain job prospect was as a newly commissioned lieutenant in the Air Force. For the increasingly political Brown, that was not an attractive option. As he considered what to do next, Brown accompanied a friend, Ben Travis, on a visit to the admissions office of Hastings College of the Law, a branch of the University of California located near San Francisco City Hall.

Intrigued, Brown applied to Hastings. "I think that my decision to go to law school was based more upon the avoidance of the military service than anything else," he said.[12] Brown was accepted to law school and resigned from ROTC. Brown immediately enlisted in the National Guard so that he could avoid active duty and serve on weekends and during the summer. He was trained as a dental hygienist and spent his time in the military scraping teeth.

In law school Brown's political talents were noticed by his white peers for the first time. "Willie stood out. He was energetic, full of vigor," recalled


classmate Gerald Hill. Brown was elected class president. He held court nightly for fellow students in a library cubicle. He told classmates that his ambition was to be elected San Francisco district attorney, an idea that a number of white students found preposterous. Many of them sneered at Brown behind his back. He may have been the class president, but he was also the school's night janitor. "In law school, people used to point at Willie and say, 'See that little nigger? He thinks some day he's going to be the district attorney,'" recalled John Burton,[13] who started at Hastings but ended up finishing law school at the University of San Francisco. Brown's circle continued to grow, and the most important friendship he made in law school was with George Moscone, who was John Burton's best friend from childhood. Hill, another law school friend, would eventually manage one of Moscone's political campaigns and would head the California Democratic Council.[14]

For Brown and other law students Hastings was mostly a drudgery to get through. "It was a streetcar school," said Hill. "It didn't have any campus. People were there to get their ticket and get out. Most of the guys had to have their nose in a book. Most of the black kids got through. The very fact that they got there showed something."

Brown was increasingly active in the NAACP as a law student. The branch was frequently at odds with the national leaders of the NAACP in New York, who found the San Francisco branch a headache, even an embarrassment, because of its infighting and penchant for independent action. They had bigger worries, such as lynchings and murders in Mississippi. But national NAACP leaders also created much of their own problem with the San Francisco branch. They had only the most rudimentary knowledge of California. On a branch roster they referred to "Berkeley College" instead of the University of California, Berkeley.[15] On a substantive level, the national leaders had little appreciation of the extent of discrimination and segregation in California. "Until the Watts riots, most black people on the East Coast thought the West Coast was Lotus Land—what do these black people have to complain about?" said Julian Bond, the Georgia civil rights leader.[16] The New York leaders appeared more concerned with preventing Communists from infiltrating their western branches than in beating back western segregation.[17] There were socialists, Trotskyites, and other assorted left-wingers attempting to infiltrate civil rights organizations in the West. But San Francisco black leaders, including Willie Brown, believed that everyone in the branch was being tarred as Communists, and it only contributed to tensions with the New York home office.[18]

Brown joined a faction in the San Francisco branch that was impatient for rapid changes in the NAACP. His approach and tenor were very much reflective of an impatient, militant younger group. "We were the protesters," Brown recalled.[19] "We didn't think the NAACP was militant enough. We


didn't think the NAACP was aggressive enough." The faction was led by Terry Francois, a fiery ex-Marine who had immigrated to San Francisco from Louisiana right after World War II.[20] Thirteen years older than Brown, Francois was a trailblazer. He graduated from Hastings in 1949 and joined the handful of other black lawyers in San Francisco. He was already a local legend when young Brown arrived in San Francisco in 1951. Francois's biggest victory came in 1952, when he headed a NAACP legal team challenging San Francisco's so-called "neighborhood policy" of forced racial segregation in public housing projects. Francois won the case, a major legal victory against racial discrimination in San Francisco and a landmark case in public housing law.[21]

But there was uglier undercurrent tainting NAACP branch infighting, and in affected elections for branch officers throughout the 1950s. The factions split along Roman Catholic and Protestant lines.[22] Black attorney Joseph Kennedy was the leader of the Protestants, and Francois was the leader of the Catholics. Kennedy was a member of Jones Methodist Church. Curiously, Brown aligned himself with Francois, a Catholic, although Kennedy was a member of his own Methodist congregation. Brown's loyalty to Francois was puzzling given Brown's strong Protestant roots. In Boswell's view, Kennedy did little to help Brown advance into a legal career, while Francois went out of his way to help the younger man. Brown had some reason to expect help from Kennedy, and he had reason to be miffed when that help was not fully forthcoming. Black lawyers were still rare, and mutual aid was expected in the black community. Brown was in the same church with Kennedy, and that should have counted for something. Brown also played a bit role in a community theater production of "Mystery of the Third Gable" directed by Kennedy.[23] The leading role was played by Kennedy's future wife, Willie, who went on to a political career of her own. "I think Willie [Brown] was certainly upset that Joe Kennedy didn't offer him more," said Boswell.[24]

Brown, however, said his choice was simple: he went with the more militant faction, and that faction was led by Francois. "I was always with the protesters in the NAACP. Joseph Kennedy was the establishment. Francois was [with] the outcasts. And all young people were always with the outcasts," he said.[25] Whatever the reasons, Francois could not have had a more loyal lieutenant than Willie Brown. His experience at Francois's side in the next few years was tumultuous, and it launched Brown into politics.

Francois and Kennedy ran against each other for president of the San Francisco NAACP branch in December 1955. The election represented a showdown between the two factions, and both sides fought with the intensity of a campaign for public office. Holding an office in the local NAACP branch was considered a major coup among San Francisco blacks. Little else was available for the politically ambitious. "The branch president was the most coveted position of black leadership in this town," recalled Brown, who was in his first year of law school at the time.[26]


From the start, the 1955 branch election was mired in controversy, which the black community kept submerged for decades, although the repercussions would last for years in San Francisco politics. "The black community had a whole lot of friction within, but it never goes outside," said Boswell.[27] The branch election scandal remained a closely guarded secret out of a survival instinct of blacks facing a hostile white world. And Willie Brown was right in the thick of it.

Francois ran on an ambitious platform.[28] He said he could boost the branch to five thousand members from 1,762. He wanted to push City Hall for a fair employment law. He proposed that as a deterrent against police brutality, each officer be required to post a $10,000 bond. He called for a boycott of Yellow Cab for its discriminatory employment practices. He campaigned for the job like no one else before him, and he took the unprecedented step of demanding a branch membership list. The old guard resisted giving him the list until directed to do so by higher officials.[29] After getting the list, Francois mailed campaign letters to every member. It was the same technique being perfected by Phillip Burton in civil elections. Francois's campaign methods were probably no accident; one of his principal supporters was Dr. Carlton Goodlett, the black publisher of the Sun-Reporter newspaper and one of Phillip Burton's closest allies.

In helping Francois, Willie Brown did not play by the rules. On the day of the election, December 11, 1955, Brown rounded up blacks anywhere he could find them—"bums off the street." Brown recalled—and brought them to the election meeting at Jones Methodist Church. He paid their $2 annual dues and got them a ballot. Roughly one-third of the city's longshoremen were Negroes, and dozens showed up to vote. Because of Brown's packing the meeting, Francois won ninety-seven votes to Kennedy's eighty-one.[30] Willie Brown had done well for Francois.

The results would not stand.

Two days later, twenty-one of Kennedy's supporters privately petitioned the New York NAACP headquarters to throw out the election. Their complaint noted a number of serious election irregularities: New members were signed up on the spot and allowed to vote, contrary to rules that required them to be on the membership roles for thirty days; there were no secret ballots; the voting was held in a crowded hallway. "Many ballots were marked by persons other than these to whom they were issued," they claimed.[31] Other complaints followed: Ethel Ray Nance, a branch board member, complained that the meeting was packed with burly dockworkers. She feared that "the branch may swing beyond control."[32]

New York NAACP officials were disturbed with what they heard from San Francisco. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, responded on January 19, 1956, by suspending the election pending an investigation.[33] It was the beginning of a stormy relationship between Wilkins and Francois and, by extension, between Wilkins and Willie Brown. Jefferson Beaver, the


San Francisco branch president, tried to quiet the storm by telling Wilkins that the branch had followed the spirit of the NAACP's constitution even if a few rules had been violated. "To my knowledge, no one raised any objection to any election procedures or actions during the course of the Election meeting," Beaver wrote Wilkins.[34] After stewing for a month, Francois blew up and fired off a telegram to Wilkins on February 18:

I feel that my program for the San Francisco branch for 1956 has been effectively frustrated by the delay resulting from the election contest. For that reason I do hereby withdraw my name from consideration as president of the San Francisco branch.[35]

On March 16, 1956, the NAACP national board of directors nullified the election and rebuked Francois and his followers.[36] The New York office directed that the current San Francisco officers remain in place until the next regularly scheduled branch election in September 1956. That meant that Jefferson Beaver, who had presided over the irregular election and whom many blamed for the whole mess, remained as president for another year. The San Francisco branch was rendered hamstrung with confusion and was even less potent a weapon for social change than before the election. For the moment, Francois bided his time. And Brown still needed to finish law school.

As Brown neared graduation from law school in 1958, he began casting about for employment. In later years he asserted that the downtown San Francisco law firms were closed to him because he was black.[37] Indeed, the downtown law firms were largely closed to blacks. But that was not the whole story. As a general rule the big firms were not very open to Hastings graduates of any color, preferring to recruit from Stanford and Boalt Hall, across the bay in Berkeley. Hastings had not yet attained the prestige it would have in later years, and its graduates tended to go to backwaters like Red Bluff and Merced in California's Central Valley. Brown's success in politics was viewed by his classmates as not just a breakthrough for African Americans but a breakthrough for Hastings graduates as well.[38]

All things considered, Brown's prospects were nevertheless bright. "In those days," said John Burton, "as my brother used to say, there weren't enough young black attorneys to piss on. So he could have been God knows what—very successful, very wealthy."[39] Brown lined up a clerkship with a federal judge.[40] A clerkship was a plum for any new lawyer, especially a black lawyer in the 1950s. It conferred prestige and provided a window to further opportunity. Again, Brown's knack for cultivating older men stood him well. Everything seemed set for Brown. He graduated from law school in 1957, took the bar exam that summer, and married Blanche in the fall. She became pregnant three months later, and they moved into an apartment at Page and Webster Streets, where Brown worked part-time as a caretaker to support his family.[41]


Then, unexpectedly, the judge died. There would be no clerkship for Brown. Had the judge lived, Brown might have ended up in a downtown law firm and his career might have taken a far different course. Francois bailed out his young friend, offering him space in his law office and, more importantly, teaching him how to be a lawyer—a street lawyer.

"The theory of law I knew. He would teach me the practice of law," Brown remembered. "He was one of the best [legal] pleaders in the world of law that I've ever known. He really exposed me and taught me, and taught me lots about the civil rights movement. He taught me lots about dealing with folks in the world of law practice, period."[42]

Francois and Brown opened an office on the third floor of an old building in the Fillmore district at 2085 Sutter Street, one block north of Jones Methodist Church. The office was also one block northwest of Itsie Collins's casino, a ready source of clients. Brown borrowed money from a bank to buy furniture.[43] Brown hustled for his clients and treated them with respect. He defended pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, just about anyone who came in the door, and pleaded their cases as if they were the wealthiest of downtown corporate clients. He became a legend in the Fillmore district.

Brown won his first case defending a prostitute by demanding that the police produce as a witness the john that she had solicited. "You can't engage in an act of prostitution by yourself," he argued. The judge agreed and threw out the case. "Of course," Brown recalled years later in a magazine interview, "when she goes back out on the streets that night, she passes the word to everybody in the world. Within a week, every pimp in town is in my office for me to represent him and his ladies, and I ended up going to court every day, and I never had less than a half dozen cases on the calendar. I made cash money every day representing whores. I became the whores' lawyer . . . until I got elected."[44]

His law school classmates began to marvel at his courtroom panache. Gerald Hill recalled watching Brown defend eight prostitutes in a single day. Hookers were not his only clients. He guided Jones Methodist Church through legal hurdles to build a housing project.[45] Brown knew nothing about land use planning and zoning laws, but he quickly learned. He kept Jones Church as a law client for decades.

These were also years when Brown began building a family. He became a father for the first time on August 5, 1958, with a daughter, Susan Elizabeth. Blanche became pregnant again the following year, and their second daughter, Robin Elaine, was born February 20, 1960. But more and more, Brown was an absentee father, throwing himself headlong into his career and all his activities. More and more, his wife Blanche reared their children on her own.

As the new decade began, San Francisco blacks started making serious stabs into electoral politics. In 1960 Francois's rival, Joseph Kennedy, ran for the state Assembly against an entrenched white incumbent, Ed Gaffney, whose district included the Fillmore. Kennedy got help from the black churches but lost.


Brown also remained active in the Young Democrats, going to meetings with his college buddy, John Burton. Attending a Young Democrats convention in Fresno in 1961, Brown met an ambitious young student, Phillip Isenberg, who was running for the statewide presidency of the YDs. The two decided to stay in touch.[46] Isenberg's career became intertwined with Brown's, and Isenberg eventually became one of Brown's chief lieutenants in the Assembly two decades later.

Francois and Brown were not done with the NAACP. Francois ran for branch president of the NAACP in 1959. This time everything was above board and he won. The branch was now run out of the Francois-Brown law office at 2085 Sutter Street, and they eventually put their legal secretary, Lydia Barros, on the payroll of the NAACP at $80 a week.[47] Francois and Brown transformed the branch into a bludgeon for civil rights, organizing boycotts, picket lines, and sit-ins. But they stepped on the toes of regional and national NAACP officials, who were miffed that Francois pushed for an open housing ordinance without consulting them. The bad blood from the 1955 election ran deep, and animosities mounted. The regional officials suspected Francois of withholding dues and hoarding the money in the local branch. The regional NAACP accused the San Francisco branch of tepid support of a 1960 western voter registration drive. Finally, Tarea Hall Pittman, acting regional secretary, wrote a letter from her Market Street office demanding explanations from Francois.[48]

Francois had Willie Brown reply for him.[49]

Brown sent Pittman a telegram demanding that she attend a meeting that day with the branch executive committee. The meeting was at their law office at 2085 Sutter Street. It is not clear whether Pittman attended, but she received a singled-spaced letter five days later from Francois replying to her allegations point by point.[50] He said that far from hoarding dues, he had sent a record $7,900 to the national headquarters. He conceded that voter registration efforts were not as vigorous as they could have been. He did not mention that Phillip Burton was pioneering new voter registration techniques in the Negro community outside of the NAACP organization. After defending himself, Francois then accused Pittman of meddling in branch affairs: "Your memorandum was ill-timed and directed to each member of the board with the idea of having some impact upon the Branch's approaching elections."

Francois's letter was signed by several of his board members, including Boswell. He also shot off a carbon copy to Wilkins in New York. The regional and national NAACP officials apparently backed off. But the rancor deepened.

As the officials fought, the NAACP San Francisco branch was briefly a stage for low comic theater, and Willie Brown played a bit role. Harold Treskunoff, a white waiter married to a black woman, continually disrupted meetings with objections and complaints. "He hated Francois. He hated Kennedy. He


hated all of us," Brown recalled four decades later.[51] Treskunoff maintained that the NAACP was too close to the Jewish Community Relations Council and needed to be closer to the "working class." He wanted the local branch to take a more militant stance than even the most militant members.[52] Treskunoff ran for branch president against Francois in 1959, but he got only three votes, all of them his relatives.[53] His disruptions at meetings then became so frequent and obnoxious that members began complaining and some stopped going to NAACP meetings.

After consulting Wilkins in New York, Francois refused to accept Treskunoff's $2 dues.[54] The tactic should have forced him out of the branch. But Treskunoff managed to get someone to accept his dues unwittingly. Finally, at a tumultuous meeting on October 23, 1960, at Jones Church, Treskunoff was physically ejected. A photograph appears to show Willie Brown confronting Treskunoff, who was clad in a blazer and bow tie.[55] Another man is knocking over wooden folding chairs trying to grab Treskunoff from behind. As Treskunoff told it later, two unidentified men grabbed him by his arms and legs, hauled him down a flight of stairs, and dumped him onto the sidewalk below. Brown said he was not among the bouncers, but "I opened the door and I got the big guys who did."[56]

Treskunoff aside, there were other more influential members in the branch who chafed under Francois and his ruling clique of cronies such as Willie Brown. Francois was a heavy-handed branch president, and complaints against him mounted. Even Willie Brown found his behavior "erratic."[57] Francois proposed abolishing monthly meetings because he was "tired" of listening to complaints.[58] Membership plummeted from 3,150 in 1960 to 1,206 a year later (which may have had more to do with Treskunoff's disruptions than Francois's leadership). Complaints to Roy Wilkins in New York generated replies suggesting that the disaffected members should defeat Francois at the next branch election.[59] "I don't think anybody could permanently get along with Terry Francois, not even the Lord," said Brown.[60]

Despite the intrigue, the chaotic meetings, and the personality clashes, the NAACP branch became a force for civil rights in San Francisco in 1960 and 1961. With Francois as president and Willie Brown chairing the legislative committee, the branch pushed heavily for jobs.[61] At the instigation of the NAACP branch, Negroes were hired as bartenders at the airport and as milk truck drivers by five major dairy companies. Kezar Stadium hired four Negroes in the press box. A restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, long a bastion of Italian Americans, agreed to hire a Negro waiter. And in a major breakthrough in the hotel industry, the Fairmont Hotel began to hire black doormen and waiters, not just maids and dishwashers. The hotel was owned by Ben Swig, a major power broker in Democratic circles. It was an important signal that San Francisco was changing, but not every hotel owner picked up on the signal. In April 1960 the branch organized a picket line at the Hilton


Hotel when it fired nineteen maids who had walked off their jobs over a variety of grievances.[62]

The branch dispatched a few bold members to document hiring discrimination against blacks. John Dearman, a black lawyer from Detroit, arrived in San Francisco hoping to find more opportunity than was available for black professionals in the Midwest. He came to Francois's law office one day looking for work. Francois had no job to offer, but he introduced him to his partner. "Willie comes out jubilant as usual—full of energy and bouncing," Dearman remembered.[63] The two became instant friends. Dearman began accompanying Brown to meetings of the Young Democrats and into the ghettos for political organizing. Physically large, Dearman sometimes acted as a bodyguard for Brown in rougher neighborhoods. Dearman had no political ambitions of his own, and he was a good listener for the overcharged, exuberant Brown. He became the perfect friend.

Francois and Brown asked Dearman to apply for claim adjuster positions with about twenty insurance agencies in San Francisco. Although Dearman had a legal background, only three agencies would give him an interview. The branch used Dearman's work to compile broad statistics describing the depth of job discrimination in San Francisco.

In marked contrast to the Oakland NAACP members, who held carefully staged rallies with political figures,[64] the San Francisco branch looked for targets of opportunity for picket lines and threw them up with little or no advance notice. For instance, the San Francisco branch picketed local Kress and F.W. Woolworth stores in sympathy with protesters in the South who were leading lunch-counter sit-ins at Woolworth stores.[65]

The Woolworth picketing lasted most of the year, upsetting the white business establishment, and was finally called off at a branch meeting on October 23, 1960. It was the same meeting in which Treskunoff was physically ejected. With Treskunoff out of the room, the branch voted unanimously to end the Woolworth picketing.[66]

With Brown chairing the legislative committee, the NAACP San Francisco branch pushed successfully for a local ordinance setting up a fund for victims of police abuse. But the branch had its defeats as well, most notably in its effort to win passage of a law prohibiting discrimination against blacks trying to rent or purchase an apartment or house. The ordinance was introduced at a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—that itself was a symbolic victory—but the bill then languished in a committee.[67]

The issue was immensely important for San Francisco blacks. Housing discrimination was deeply ingrained in San Francisco. In 1948 the new director of the San Francisco Urban League, Seaton Manning, was unable to find a house in the city and threatened to return to his former home of Boston. "Anything that is any good is restricted," he told a friend.[68] Nothing had changed since then. Even baseball player Willie Mays, the star of the San


Francisco Giants, was rebuffed from buying a home in a white neighborhood because of the color of his skin.[69]

In 1960 the issue reached a critical stage in the black community. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, an arm of the Board of Supervisors, embarked on a massive campaign of demolishing blighted buildings in the Western Addition from 1957 to 1960, displacing roughly 3,700 families in the neighborhood.[70] Officially it was called "Urban Renewal," but civil rights leaders dejectedly called it "Negro Removal." By some estimates, two out of three black families in San Francisco were forced to move in a three-year period. The slum clearance had far-reaching effects. One-third of those forced to move left the city, and new ghettos popped up elsewhere in the Bay Area, for example, in East Palo Alto, to the south.[71] As they moved out, blacks encountered higher rents and closed doors. Ending racial discrimination by landlords was not just an issue of lofty principle but a crisis for survival for the black community. For Willie Brown, open housing became a consuming personal crusade, and the issue was about to catapult him into politics.


previous chapter
Chapter Seven— Jones United Methodist Church
next chapter