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xi

We spend our years as a tale that is told.
Psalm 90, King James Version
Read at the funeral of Minnie Collins Boyd, January 7, 1993


On a dank January morning in 1993, a string of limousines quietly arrived at the Good Street Baptist Church, a modest brick building in Oak Cliff, in the heart of one of Dallas's largest black neighborhoods. The church inside was neatly lined with long pine pews, the varnish rubbed smooth by years of faithful worship. The walls were painted plain white, holding narrow windows with plain tinted green glass. There was nothing extraordinary about the Good Street Baptist Church, but an extraordinary scene was about to unfold.

The limousines were filled mostly with white elected officials and political fixers from California, and they poured into the Good Street Baptist Church that morning. They had come a very long way at considerable expense and on very short notice. The power elite of the nation's largest state had come to Texas to pay homage to Minnie Collins Boyd, a small black woman who had worked much of her life as a maid for Dallas's white families. She had died at the age of eighty-three.

Most of the mourners that morning had never met the woman to whom they were now paying their last respects. Only a few ever had been inside a black church. They filed into the church, sometimes awkwardly in clumps, sometimes alone. One or two brought a bodyguard. Some had taken midnight flights, and many looked weary. But getting there mattered a great deal.


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As the memorial service began, they listened as tributes were read from Texas Governor Ann Richards and former President Ronald Reagan. A night earlier, back in California, Governor Pete Wilson paid his respects to the deceased during his televised annual State of the State address.

The reason for all of the attention had to do with her son.

Minnie—as she was universally called by her friends, family, and the former president—was the mother of Willie Lewis Brown Jr., who at that moment was the most powerful politician in California and, by virtue of that status, arguably the most powerful African American politician in the United States. He held enormous power over millions of people, he moved freely in the nation's most powerful circles, and he was welcomed almost like family in both the Reagan and the Clinton White House. But he was nearly unknown to most Americans.

Minnie Boyd's family was last to file into the church and the first to leave. Willie Brown was Minnie's fourth child, so he appropriately walked fourth in the procession. He held hands with his estranged wife, Blanche, and they sat together quietly with their three children. There was no doubt, however, about who was directing the events of that morning, or why so many had come so far to attend a funeral for a maid.

They came for Willie.

No politician dominated California politics longer or more completely than Willie Brown. No politician in California was more flamboyant or controversial or relished wielding power with more joy and zeal. None commanded more fear and hatred in his opponents.

On the morning he buried his mother, Brown was starting his record seventh term as Speaker of the California State Assembly. He ended up holding the Speakership for almost eight terms, twice as long as the previous record-holder, Jesse Unruh, the legendary "Big Daddy," who was Democratic boss when Brown first arrived in Sacramento, almost thirty years earlier.

As he moved through life, Brown's origins were never far from his lips. "When I lived in Mineola, Texas," he once boasted, "I couldn't have a glimmer that one of these days I would be handling $30 billion of mostly white peoples' money." He disliked Texas and rarely visited his native state, preferring to send his relatives airplane tickets to visit him. But in January 1993 he returned to bury his mother.

The night before her funeral, Brown hosted an informal wake in the Good Street Baptist Church social hall, a long room with a low ceiling and plywood paneling. A few yards away, his mother's body lay in an open casket, surrounded by wreaths of flowers that continued to pour into the church during the wake. A few California political figures came for the wake, but they arrived late because their chartered bus from their hotel broke down in a rough neighborhood about two miles from the church. Brown, who was accompanying them, ordered his friends to stay on the bus, and then


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California's most powerful politician hitchhiked alone through the darkness to the church. There he rallied a procession of cars to gather the stranded pols and bring them back to the church.

Among those who got a lift were Bill Campbell, the president of the California Manufacturers Association; Mike Roos, a former legislator who headed a high-powered education foundation in Los Angeles; and Bill Rutland, a former aide turned lobbyist. Also on the bus was another former aide, Phillip Isenberg, who had become a powerful legislator in his own right as Brown's handpicked chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The Californians finally arrived, whispering about the wrath that Willie Brown would certainly inflict upon a Dallas bus company.

Inside the church, Minnie Collins Boyd was laid out in a gray suit. Wrapped around her head was one of the turbans she loved to wear in life. She looked very tiny inside the casket surrounded by mountains of flowers and wreaths.

Willie Brown that evening was a world away from the life he had forged in California. The church hall seemed small and slightly shabby compared with his favorite glitzy restaurants and the grandiose Assembly chambers where he ruled. Brown invited those who wished to come forward and share their memories. Most of those who spoke were Minnie Boyd's Dallas neighbors. The morning would belong to the politicians, but that evening belonged to them.

Brown called the wake a "celebration" of his mother's life, and it was. He was visibly moved by the remembrances of people he did not know. They told how she loved surrounding herself with people, entertaining them with stories of her children, and how she delighted in all those luxuries—big and small—that were denied her in childhood. Left unsaid was that her powerful son provided her with all those trips to Europe and the shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus.

Minnie was married twice but never to Lewis Brown, the man who fathered three of her five children, including Willie. She was religious, sang in the choir, and kept after her children to go to church. But she grew up with brothers who were professional gamblers and bootleggers. They called her a "party girl."

By the time she died, Minnie had twenty-five grandchildren, thirty-two great grandchildren, and a huge extended family of friends in Oak Cliff. Like her mother before her, she reared every child on her block. Like her son, she seemed to know everyone. The spirit Willie Brown celebrated that night was as much his as hers. Like her, he beat the odds, succeeding beyond the expectations of everyone in the room but himself. He was the ultimate gambler in a family of gamblers. For fun, he threw dice for stakes no higher than a glass of wine. In politics the stakes were always for the house.

For a few hours on a drizzly January night, his friends and rivals set aside their differences at the Good Street Baptist Church to honor Willie Brown's


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mother. But Brown was not the only center of attention that night. Holding court at a table in the social hall was Brown's uncle, eighty-seven-year-old Itsie Collins, who in his good days was a bootlegger and gambler, and was still physically imposing. It was Itsie Collins who brought Willie Brown to San Francisco and opened for him a side of life unknown in rural Texas. That night Brown took great delight in introducing his uncle. "I suspect he only survives because neither place wants him," Brown joked. "He is the man I've patterned my life after more than any other." Brown left the crowd guessing at what he meant.

Brown loved power and the trappings of power. He loved the extravagance of it—the cars, the telephones, aides scurrying everywhere, and above all, the stage. He was a peacock, an actor, a circus master, perhaps the last great political showman of the twentieth century. He tried to make everything a bigger-than-life production, whether it was a fund-raiser with Ray Charles or a spur-of-the-moment evening at the movies with his friends, for which he rented the entire theater. Brown was incapable of doing anything without making a huge splash. Willie Brown was more than a politician. He was a phenomenon .

But on the morning Willie Brown's mother was buried, there was only a small choir at the Good Street Baptist Church. While the hymns wafted through the church, the politicians continued streaming inside, eventually filling it. A delegation from Washington, D.C., including several members of Congress, jammed together with state legislators from Sacramento. Republicans and Democrats, many of them political foes of Willie Brown, took places together on the hard wooden pews. That so many powerful whites would show such respect for an African American man and his mother should have seemed extraordinary. But nothing about it seemed out of place. Brown's power was unquestioned. That so many felt moved, or compelled, to be there for his mother's funeral was a measure of it.

Brown gave no eulogy that morning. He walked up the aisle behind his sisters. At the end of the service he said a few words of thanks to those who had traveled so far on such short notice, and he announced he was setting up a scholarship fund named for his mother. When the funeral was over, Brown put on a black raincoat, a purple scarf, and a black beaverskin fedora. He stepped outside of the church and stood on a sidewalk near his limousine accepting handshakes like a real-life character out of a movie by his friend Francis Ford Coppola.

On Brown's signal, a long procession of cars began wending past the boarded-up apartment houses and shabby stores of Oak Cliff. The stubby trees were barren of leaves that January morning, and the Texas plain melted into the gray sky. As the cars rounded a corner, a young black man stood on a curb with his hat over his heart, probably not knowing whom he honored but honoring her all the same. The procession crossed the Trinity River and


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passed Southern Methodist University Medical Center, where Minnie Collins Boyd had died. Willie Brown's mother traveled to her final resting place in a cemetery in the white suburbs north of Dallas.

Willie Brown did not linger at his mother's graveside. He hung back while his uncle and sisters wept under a canopy while the final prayers were said. Brown stood quietly at the rear of the crowd, accepting more handshakes and whispers from other politicians. When the prayers were completed over his mother's casket, Willie Brown turned and gripped hands with his wife, and they walked back to their limousine. Within a few hours he was flying back to his adopted domain in California, his final duty to his mother completed.

Those who came to the funeral of Minnie Collins Boyd saw a rare glimpse of where Willie Brown came from and how far he had traveled in his remarkable journey. But to know where Willie Brown was going—to know what really drove him—they needed to know from what he had fled.


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