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Chapter Thirteen— RFK
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Chapter Thirteen—

Why hasn't Willie used his political position to stop police brutality and intimidation? ASK HIM.
Black Panther Party leaflet
Fall 1968

Willie Brown was unlike most run-of-the-mill state legislators, for he was making a name for himself in political circles outside his statehouse. If anything, he was becoming more important outside Sacramento than inside. He was a black elected official, a rarity in the United States in 1968. He was energetic, outspoken, willing to take risks, and abundantly ambitious. He was also flamboyant, and like Adam Clayton Powell in Congress, Brown delighted in making outrageous statements that his constituents enjoyed. But unlike Powell, Brown also was working at becoming an insider. Notwithstanding his veneer of black militancy, Willie Brown was by now well connected with the major power brokers of the California Democratic Party. He had taken several qualitative steps toward obtaining genuine political power. He was now somebody , and his endorsements were becoming a valuable commodity for white liberals outside Sacramento.

Willie Brown was the flashiest legislator in Sacramento and was something of a dandy. That spring he wore Nehru jackets and love beads.[1] He paraded his new outfit on the Assembly floor, to the chuckles of his colleagues and reporters. The look did not last long on Brown, but became an endless source of gags and jokes among both his friends and his adversaries.

And jokes were in short supply in 1968.

The year was wrenching for both Willie Brown and the rest of the country. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, the Reverend Martin Luther King


Jr. was assassinated, and soon after, so was Robert F. Kennedy. Following King's murder, blacks in the nation's ghettos burned and looted their own neighborhoods. Politically, President Lyndon Johnson appeared unable to control events, and he announced that he would not seek reelection. Students on the nation's campuses became increasingly militant, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, and at San Francisco State College.

In that tumultuous year Willie Brown endorsed Robert Kennedy for president. His endorsement was one of the most important decisions in his political career, for it catapulted him into political circles far beyond the confines of California's stultifying statehouse. From that moment on—although no one could foresee it at the time—Assemblyman Willie Brown became an increasingly important player in presidential politics. He was the black leader in California to see for any Democrat seriously seeking to become president of the United States. His friend Julian Bond, a black politician from Georgia also on the rise in 1968, noted many years later: "If you thought about California, you had to think about Willie Brown."[2] And all the presidential would-bes came, culminating twenty-four years later when Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton sought Brown's endorsement and remarked that he had met "the real Slick Willie."

Brown's distinction as a rising star sparked a series of petty jealousies among his colleagues back in Sacramento, particularly among rival black legislators. Those jealousies simmered and eventually bubbled to the fore and frustrated his early bids for leadership in the Legislature. Brown had several rivals who believed they had at least an equal claim to be the most prominent black elected official in California, chief among them state Senator Mervyn Dymally, who had his own powerful allies and huge ambitions to match. But with Robert Kennedy's tragic campaign for president, Brown leaped ahead of his rivals in California and into national political circles in the East.

Brown's political philosophy matched Robert Kennedy's like that of no other national political leader in his career. The two were both against the Vietnam War, and Kennedy embraced black civil rights like no other white politician in America. Both were also consummately pragmatic professionals. Willie Brown respected Kennedy not just for his idealism but also for being a tough politician. But all the same, Willie Brown's decision to endorse Bobby Kennedy was largely made for him by others. Brown was drawn to Kennedy by the gravitational pull of the two heaviest planets in his universe: Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the Assembly, and Congressman Phillip Burton, his political mentor and the leader of San Francisco liberals.

Phillip Burton's endorsement of Robert Kennedy was complicated. By now Burton had reached an understanding with Unruh over a rough division


of power in California Democratic politics. Simply put, Unruh controlled the Legislature and Burton controlled the congressional delegation. Coming down on the same side in a presidential primary could only help cement their rapprochement. But it was not that easy for Burton. Eugene McCarthy was also running for president, and he had a claim on Burton's ideological allegiance because of their early mutual opposition to the Vietnam War. The Minnesota senator had made a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary in February, coming in a strong second and embarrassing President Johnson into abandoning the race and retiring from public life. But McCarthy moved too slowly and did not take advantage of his win by courting Burton. The error may have cost McCarthy key organizational support in the winner-take-all California primary.

For Unruh, endorsing Robert Kennedy was a foregone conclusion if only he could convince him to run. Unruh was personally close to the Kennedys even before John F. Kennedy's election to the White House. Unruh's status was enhanced as Camelot's representative on the West Coast during Kennedy's presidency, and Unruh would do anything in his power to regain that mantle.[3] Unruh was coy about his allegiance early in the 1968 presidential campaigning, refusing to endorse Lyndon Johnson's reelection or the antiwar crusade of Eugene McCarthy. In January 1968 Unruh secretly spent three days with Robert Kennedy at Kennedy's Virginia home, Hickory Hill, and urged him to run.[4] Kennedy said he would think about it.

Before he was officially in the presidential race, Robert Kennedy made moves in California that appealed to urban liberals such as Phillip Burton and Willie Brown. On March 10, 1968, Kennedy visited Delano, a small farm community in California's Central Valley where Cesar Chavez was organizing the first successful union of farmworkers. Improving the conditions of farm laborers, long among the most exploited and impoverished people in California, had been one of Phillip Burton's passions when he was in the Legislature.

Chavez had been fasting to win attention for his movement. Kennedy came to see him at the emotionally charged moment that Chavez had chosen to break his fast. Kennedy joined Chavez in a small chapel with a picture of John F. Kennedy on the wall.[5] The two shared Holy Communion, and Chavez broke his fast with the bread at the altar. Kennedy's presence in far-off Delano was extraordinary, and his words that day were nothing less than a clarion call. "The world must know from this time forward," Kennedy told the farmworkers, "that the migrant farmworker, the Mexican-American, is coming into his own rights. You are winning a special kind of citizenship—no one is doing it for you."[6]

In later years support for Chavez and his union (and Robert Kennedy) would be a mantra of both California and national Democratic politics. But in 1968 Kennedy's appearance with Chavez in Delano came when the United Farm Workers Union was fighting for its life and forcing a break between urban and rural Democrats. In praising the union, Kennedy forcefully injected


himself into one of the most contentious and long-running political disputes in California: farm labor. In choosing sides with urban liberals who were campaigning to improve the condition of farmworkers, Kennedy came down against conservative rural Democrats, whose power was diminishing but far from broken. By aligning with Chavez, Kennedy stood with liberals in their power struggle with the old guard of the California Democratic Party. It earned him powerful political enemies in the state, including former governor Pat Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. The two long-time enemies agreed on one issue: Bobby Kennedy.

Many supposedly prolabor Democrats, at both the state and the national level, were careful not to pick sides on the issue. It was easy to be for labor when that meant accepting campaign contributions from George Meany, the gruff prowar president of the AFL-CIO, or from the Central Valley agribusinesses, which were closely connected with congressional Democrats who preserved federal water subsidies. It was not so easy to be for labor if that meant siding with scrappy, poor Mexicans having no campaign contributions to hand out.

Kennedy chose the poor Mexicans.

After Chavez had broken his fast, Kennedy flew to Los Angeles and telephoned Unruh. He told him he had made up his mind to run for president. Three days after his visit to Delano, Kennedy, back in Washington, D.C., summoned Burton off the House floor to meet with him. Burton and Kennedy went for a walk around the U.S. Capitol. At the end of their walk, Burton's endorsement was sealed.[7]

Phillip Burton's endorsement cost him support from the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union in San Francisco, which withdrew its support of his reelection, but the loss was not critical.[8] Robert Kennedy had helped send Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa to prison, so established unions would not help Kennedy. The ILWU had long been an integral part of Burton's election machinery, but the union's snub did not extend to the rest of Burton's San Francisco associates. The union endorsed John Burton and Willie Brown.

Organizing the Kennedy campaign in California proved difficult as gargantuan egos clashed from the start. Unruh was named California state campaign chairman, and Phillip Burton took the lesser title of chairman of the San Francisco campaign. In reality, Unruh ran Southern California while Burton ran Northern California. Willie Brown was named one of five San Francisco cochairmen.[9] He had no real authority, but the Kennedy campaign hoped Brown could attract black voters. Brown indeed worked diligently for Kennedy in the black community, but he also sought and found levers in the Kennedy campaign with which he could further his personal ambitions, ever a part of Brown's agenda.

Willie Brown was on the move within the campaign from the start. The San Francisco Kennedy campaign's inner circle met on March 23, 1968, to plan


the campaign.[10] Besides Brown and Phillip Burton, the circle included Jack Ertola and Roger Boas, two powerful members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ertola was, in fact, president of the board, second in visibility in San Francisco only to the mayor. Also in the room that day was Morris Bernstein, a local political fixer and fund-raiser. Rounding out the group was Edna Mosk, the wife of Stanley Mosk, a justice on the California Supreme Court and former Democratic state attorney general who still hoped to be elected governor someday.

Brown pushed to include more blacks in leadership positions, namely himself. He soon won a spot as a Kennedy delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. More important, Brown was given a seat on the convention Credentials Committee, the powerful panel that would pass judgment on who could be seated as a delegate and who could not. Challenges by blacks to all-white delegations were expected, and the position would put Brown at the center of the battleground for control of the Democratic Party. One other black legislator from California held a prominent position on the delegation, Assemblywoman Yvonne Braithwaite, who was named to serve on the convention Platform Committee along with Phillip Burton.

Robert Kennedy's 1968 California delegation was a remarkable collection of political talent. It included nearly every California Democrat who would be prominent in the next decade.[11] Besides Brown, Burton, and Unruh, the Kennedy slate included Cesar Chavez; Tom Bradley, a future mayor of Los Angeles; state Senator George Moscone, a future mayor of San Francisco; Assemblyman Bob Moretti, a future Assembly Speaker; and Assemblyman Leo Ryan, who as a member of Congress lost his life ten years later on a South American airstrip while investigating the cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones from San Francisco. Another delegate was actress Shirley MacLaine, who was an activist in Democratic politics.

There were two other slates of delegates on the June 1968 Democratic California presidential primary ballot. Former governor Pat Brown led old-guard Democrats out to stop Kennedy. His slate of delegates was technically unpledged, but it was an open secret that Pat Brown's slate favored the candidacy of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who declined to enter the California primary. Besides Pat Brown, the unpledged delegates included the state's Democratic establishment: San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and Assemblyman John Foran, sworn enemies of the Burton camp in San Francisco; actor Gregory Peck; and state legislators, including Carlos Bee, Jerome Waldie, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Burns. Significantly for Willie Brown, the unpledged list included black Assemblyman Bill Greene from Los Angeles and San Francisco Supervisor Terry Francois, his old mentor turned enemy. Greene's presence foreshadowed later problems for Brown in Assembly politics. Francois's presence on Pat Brown's slate was a further sign of Francois's estrangement from Willie Brown.


Eugene McCarthy's list of delegates was telling as well. Jerry Brown, a young ex-seminarian from Berkeley who was pledged to McCarthy, was pointedly absent from his father Pat's delegation. Also, oddly enough, John Burton was on the McCarthy slate. For John Burton, it was an act of independence from his powerful brother. By now the Vietnam War was practically John Burton's sole issue, and he considered Kennedy a latecomer. Pundits did not see it for what it was—friction between the two brothers—and instead accused Phillip Burton of plotting to control whatever delegation made it to the convention.

In an age of perpetual presidential campaigns, it is hard to remember that Robert Kennedy's campaign—from its promising beginning to its abrupt end—lasted just three months. Presidential campaigns now go on for years, and are thought of like football games, with kickoffs, half-times, quarters, and endgames. But Robert Kennedy's campaign was an intensive drive with no letup. It was all endgame.

Contrary to post-assassination myths, the Kennedy campaign in California was chaotic and disorganized. Unruh and the California politicians clashed with each other and with the East Coast consultants Kennedy sent to the state to straighten things out.[12] Unruh tried to manage every detail, and details began to escape him. Kennedy almost did not get on the California ballot because lawyers dispatched by Unruh to the secretary of state's office barely made it before closing. Meanwhile, the Kennedy staff treated the Californians brusquely, and tensions grew. Well-meaning volunteers were haughtily turned away from the campaign organization. Finally, Kennedy sent campaign aide Steve Smith to California, and he set up an office next to Unruh's. Everything in the campaign from then on had to go through both Unruh and Smith for approval.

Kennedy made one other personnel move that helped untangle the California campaign. His press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, gave up his duties with the national press to become a campaign tactician in California. Mankiewicz knew California. He was an old hand in California Democratic clubs, and his father was a legendary film producer. As a UCLA student, Mankiewicz had battled H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman in student politics. Most important, Mankiewicz was an old friend of Unruh.

One of the California politicians impressed Mankiewicz: Willie Brown. "Willie is a strong speaker," Mankiewicz said. "I kind of liked the emphasis that it would give to the racial diversity."[13] Four years later, Mankiewicz would come back to California asking Brown to support another presidential candidate, George McGovern.

The Kennedy campaign was a hurricane of activity in California. Political observers added to the pressures inside the campaign by predicting that the presidential nomination would be decided in California. But for the intervention of an assassin's bullet, they probably would have been right. All the politicians in the campaign began to devote their full energies to


Kennedy. On May 18, Willie Brown, Phillip Burton, and Jack Ertola, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, rang doorbells in the city's Richmond District. A campaign press release noted that they would be accompanied by "colorfully attired Kennedy girls."[14]

Kennedy stumped up and down California talking himself hoarse. Willie Brown was prone in later years to exaggerate his position in the campaign, sometimes referring to himself the "California chairman." But he was not exaggerating his importance to the campaign. Brown kept up a furious pace on behalf of Kennedy. He and his law partner, John Dearman, often accompanied Kennedy into rough neighborhoods.[15] "I put together the private dinners and all that kind of stuff, and we went through the ghetto communities on a swing—motorcades, rallies," Brown recalled.

During one tumultuous appearance in the Hunters Point ghetto of San Francisco, Kennedy rode in an open car along with Brown and Phillip Burton. Dearman vividly recalled what happened next: "Kennedy was out mingling with the people and he was having difficulty getting back to the car. Roosevelt Grier, that big football player, just kind of picked him up like a little baby and held him before the crowd and deposited him in the car. Willie said: 'Man, that is one big brute, man!'"

Willie Brown's value to the campaign rose for the most tragic of reasons. On April 4 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis.

Reporters in Sacramento who sought out Brown for his reaction found him visibly shaken. In slow, measured tones, Brown attempted to explain that King's death was a loss not just for blacks, but for all Americans. Brown probably could have chosen his words more elegantly, but he laid bare the pain and fear of a black leader groping to understand the enormity of the murder: "I think a little bit of all of us died with him," he said. "He was the symbol of the hope of all black folks and what has been destroyed is that symbol. He's probably a greater loss to the white people of America. As long as that symbol existed, a viable, believable alternative to the most militant, radical element existed. . . . It will be more difficult, if not impossible, to honestly say to the black community that nonviolence and the use of democratic process is still an open avenue for change. . . . Martin Luther King probably represented more anti-riot insurance than any anti-riot weapon and any anti-riot legislation could ever mean."[16]

Black neighborhoods across America erupted in violence. King's murder ignited the rage that had been smoldering for decades. The measured tones of the black leaders did little to quell the flames. Brown's remarks to reporters notwithstanding, he did his best in the ghettos to explain why the democratic process was still an "open avenue for change." Meanwhile, his candidate for president, Robert Kennedy, did more than any other politician in the country to bring calm, venturing into neighborhoods where no other white politicians dared to go. Brown paved the way for Kennedy in California with


hostile black audiences. In so doing, Brown turned himself into a target of abuse in the black community.

Brown attended King's funeral in Atlanta. Also representing the California Assembly were Leon Ralph, a black Democrat from Los Angeles, and William Bagley, a white Republican from Marin County. Blanche Brown accompanied her husband. The delegation rented a car at the Atlanta airport and picked up a black legislator from New York. Bagley was behind the wheel, and Brown had him drive up and down the streets of Atlanta's ghetto.[17] Brown hung out the window waving at black children. The children waved back with amazed looks on their faces.

"What are you doing, Willie?" Bagley finally asked.

"They ain't never seen a white man drive four niggers before," Brown replied, enjoying the shock value of his remark on his white colleague.

The Californians arrived late. They were ushered inside through a side entrance and found themselves unexpectedly in the front row at King's funeral. Bagley was amazed at the fortune of his friend.

Feelings were still high when Kennedy arrived on April 19, 1968, in San Francisco to speak before an angry audience of six thousand at the University of San Francisco, in the heart of the city.[18] Wearing a conservative dark coat and tie, Brown was heckled as he introduced Kennedy, who then tried to spell out what he believed would be the ultimate cost of black rage: "The violent youth of the ghetto is not simply protesting his condition, but making a destructive and self-defeating attempt to assert his worth and dignity as a man—to tell us that though we may scorn his contribution, we must still respect his power. But this is the most destructive and self-defeating of attempts. This is no revolution. The word means to seize power, but the advocates of violence are not going to overthrow the American government. . . . The end is not a better life for black people; it is a devastated America. It is a program for death, not life."[19] Kennedy was repeatedly heckled with shouts of "fascist pig!" and he finally discarded his text and invited questions.

Kennedy continued to stump in California. Toward the end of May, accompanied by astronaut John Glenn, Kennedy embarked on an exhausting whistle-stop train tour of the Central Valley, pausing along the way in Fresno and concluding in Sacramento. Toward the end of the day, Kennedy was driven to Oakland for a meeting with a black audience arranged by Willie Brown. As Kennedy arrived, Brown attempted to calm the crowd but was again heckled. Someone in the crowd yelled that he was a "Technicolor nigger."[20]

Rafer Johnson, a black Olympic decathlon champion, stood up and apologized to Kennedy for the behavior. The crowd began shouting at Johnson that he was an "Uncle Tom" and told him to sit down. During the commotion, Brown, Unruh, and Phillip Burton stood on stage behind Kennedy. A grainy photo taken from behind the stage shows just how


panicked the politicians were that day.[21] While Kennedy is speaking to the audience, Burton is shown shouting, his arm outstretched across Unruh's face. Brown is holding a microphone. His eyes are so wide they can be seen clearly through his thick glasses.

"Look man," a heckler shouted at Kennedy, "I don't want to hear none of your shit. What the goddamned hell are you going to do, boy? . . . You bastards haven't done nothing for us. We wants to know, what are you going to do for us?"[22] Kennedy was unable to say much of anything.

After the confrontation, Kennedy and the politicians drove to San Francisco. The Californians were crestfallen at the treatment of their candidate. But Kennedy told them he wasn't the least bit sorry; blacks, he said, needed an opportunity to vent their anger.[23]

The next morning, Kennedy and his entourage returned to Oakland for a rally. At first there were shouts of "Free Huey" from a crowd of leather-coated Black Panthers in support of Panther leader Huey Newton, who was about to go on trial in Oakland for murder. It looked as if the Kennedy rally would be a tiresome replay of a day earlier. But then the same heckler who had shouted at Kennedy about not "taking any shit"—a man who called himself "Black Jesus"—handed out leaflets admonishing the audience to treat Kennedy with respect. Strangely enough, the Panthers suddenly turned protective and cleared a path through the throng for Kennedy's car to pass. Black Jesus got in front of Kennedy's car and also helped to clear a path. The rally went well; the crowd was on Kennedy's side that day.

A few months later Willie Brown told oral historian Jean Stein about his amazement that day: "The same persons who were raising all the hell and asking all of the very nasty questions and doing all of the loud screaming . . . were the persons who were acting as his guards and . . . clearing the car from the crowds."[24]

Brown often acted as Kennedy's surrogate, appearing, for example, on May 15 at the University of California, Davis, just outside Sacramento. "Kennedy knows that a nation can move only as fast as the head man provides the proper attitude for that development," Brown said.[25]

With only a few days left before the primary election, Kennedy hosted a dinner for wealthy supporters at the Fairmont Hotel, then as now the ornate citadel of San Francisco's moneyed establishment. The only blacks invited were Brown, Dearman, and comic actor Bill Cosby, accompanied by their wives.[26] Dearman showed up wearing a black leather jacket and black turtleneck. With an Afro haircut and a bushy black beard, Dearman looked the image of a Black Panther. Suspicious Kennedy aides would not admit Dearman and began frisking him. "They patted me all over," Dearman recalled. Finally Cosby spotted the commotion at the door and vouched for the lawyer. "Two or three nights later they didn't frisk the right guy," Dearman remarked twenty-five years later as a judge of the San Francisco Superior Court.


Brown's political philosophy took a beating that year. He embraced the cause of a white politician trying to be president, but he was pulled in another direction by angry blacks no longer willing to wait for deliverance from conventional, white-dominated politics. Brown did his best to straddle his two worlds. He did so by never wavering from his deepest belief, born of his youth in segregated Texas, that the two worlds of black and white needed to come together on equal ground. That could only happen, in his view, by empowering blacks, who had never held power. And, in his view, he represented the disenfranchised and was worthy of a piece of political power.

On the eve of the June presidential primary, Willie Brown appeared at a meeting of angry black students at his alma mater, San Francisco State College.[27] He explained his view of the real meaning of "black power." For Brown, the phrase had nothing to do with voguish theories of Marxism and revolution. For Willie Brown, then as later, black power meant only one thing: electing blacks to positions of real political power. Nor could those blacks winning power be black in complexion only. Brown proclaimed that a black politician "must in fact be a black man. And if he happens to be only in color, then we in the family must make him black otherwise."

Some white politicians at the time were scandalized at such pronouncements, seeing no difference between Willie Brown and H. Rap Brown. They had little or no appreciation of the black anger Brown was trying to channel and the pressures he was under in the volatile black community. Willie Brown's ultimate message, couched in the terms of the time, was that blacks must work within the mainstream; the system needed overthrowing, but from within. In Brown's view, Robert Kennedy was among the few white politicians who understood his point.

Robert Kennedy won the California primary. On election night, June 4, Robert Kennedy was in Los Angeles for a victory party at the Ambassador Hotel. A second victory party was held in San Francisco, at California Hall, an old auditorium near City Hall. The stand-in for the candidate was his younger brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Willie Brown was jubilant that night. All of his hard work was paying off. Politics on such a night was the greatest high on earth. Willie Brown's friends remember him standing on stage endlessly hugging Ted Kennedy and shaking hands with everyone in sight. Brown kept telling his friends, over and over: "You know, we might be able to go to the White House! And we won't have to go in the backdoor! We can walk in the front door!"[28] Brown was ready to party all night.

John Dearman left the party shortly after midnight. A beaming Willie Brown gave him a thumbs-up as Dearman departed. Dearman walked to his car a few blocks away. When he turned on the ignition, he heard the news on his car radio: Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles and was in critical condition. Dearman drove home in stunned silence, unable to bring himself to return to California Hall and the pandemonium inside.[29]


Willie Brown was standing with Ted Kennedy when a phone rang and someone told them the news. The two politicians "went to pieces," Brown recalled.[30] Someone kicked over a blackboard on the stage, someone else shouted angrily "This god-damned white racism!"[31] Phillip Burton telephoned the Army base at San Francisco's Presidio and bullied an officer into providing a military jet to take Ted Kennedy to Los Angeles to be at his dying brother's side.[32] A reporter sought out Brown's reaction, and Brown ventured that Kennedy must have been shot as part of a conspiracy.[33] Roughly twenty-four hours later, Kennedy died of wounds inflicted by Sirhan Sirhan.

A quarter-century later, Brown recalled those traumatic events in an interview as he sat in one of his favorite San Francisco restaurants, Le Central. Brown was still incredulous at what happened. The pain returned to his face as he told of that awful night. "I couldn't believe it. There's no way, you know. Five years earlier they'd killed a brother, the other brother. There's no way. How could that be? It didn't make any sense. It did not make any sense. June fourth, 1968. It didn't make any sense at all. Two months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated? No way."[34]

Although Kennedy died two days after winning the California primary, his delegates would still represent the state in Chicago at the national convention. The winner-take-all primary meant that they, and not Pat Brown's cronies, represented the nation's most populous state. But they had no candidate. The delegation, with Unruh serving as chairman, met on June 15 in Los Angeles to talk about their future. Willie Brown advocated joining forces with McCarthy's delegates at the convention to stop Vice President Hubert Humphrey from winning the nomination. But Brown did not endorse McCarthy; he advocated holding out for an unnamed compromise candidate.[35]

But without a candidate, the strategy had no hope of success. Arrangements were made at the meeting to put John Burton, a McCarthy supporter, on the Kennedy delegation so that he could go to the Chicago convention. Some of those on the other slates were added to the delegation as well in a unity move that had been planned by Kennedy before the primary. After the meeting, a heartbroken Willie Brown returned to Sacramento to attend to legislative business.

Back in Sacramento, Brown addressed a "poor people's rally" on the Capitol steps in Sacramento. It was only two weeks after the assassination, and his grief showed in the rashness of his remarks. "Poor folk have got to come to Sacramento and say to the people in Sacramento in the kind of confrontations that you know best, you've literally got to scare the hell out of these people to get them to believe you," he told the crowd. He was angry at politics and angry at his self-centered legislative colleagues. Robert Kennedy was dead, and it was business as usual in the Legislature.


To Brown, it was an otherwise small event—another forgettable speech, another forgettable day. But the speech had important consequences. Although Brown's remarks caught the attention of almost no one in the Capitol, they were noticed by San Diego's starchy Republican assemblyman, Pete Wilson.

Wilson seized on Brown's words with a vengeance. Wilson issued a sharp, three-page press release rebuking his colleague. Wilson's release also went unnoticed by the press—few thought it important enough to write a story. But it was the start of a contentious relationship that carried forward into the 1990s to when Governor Pete Wilson and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown were the chief protagonists for power in California. Wilson's press release is therefore worth quoting at some length:

I think I understand something of the pressures a politician is under to say things his constituents or listeners want to hear. In this regard, special sympathy is due the elected representatives of minority groups who are under intense pressure from "militants" to say and do things which more excite than solve. . . . To those who yield, I cannot pretend that my sympathy is full appreciation of their very difficult position; and perhaps I owe them greater understanding. . . .

My personal disappointment at the conduct of a colleague is of no importance except to me. Of large and lasting importance to all Californians is the threat to our system of government inherent in Mr. Brown's injunction to "the poor." . . .

The ultimate extension of Mr. Brown's injunction to the poor is government by threat. Mr. Brown's statement does far more than "steal the good name" of the legislature. It threatens to replace public confidence in and respect for the law with public contempt for the law. . . .

Lest there be any doubt, I think I can speak for certainly the vast majority of my fellow legislators when I say that we will not be intimidated by threats, and certainly we will not be persuaded by them as a substitute for reasonable argument. . . .

To tolerate rude, disruptive, and threatening behavior is to encourage belief in Mr. Brown's bad advice, to breed contempt for the law and undermine the legislature's very reason for being.[36]

Taken at face value, Wilson's statement was motivated by a belief that democracy was threatened by the apparently demagogic statements of Willie Brown. After all, Brown had embraced the threat of violence as a club against his legislative colleagues. Taken only at face value, Brown's speech to the poor people's rally was outrageous.

But to a black legislator, Wilson's statement had a patronizing tone. If Brown was demagogic, Wilson was preachy and self-important. His was a moralistic lawyer's view of the world. At best, Wilson acknowledged that he had only a limited sympathy for the pressures black legislators were under in their districts. Nowhere did Wilson show any understanding for how little political power blacks held. Nor did Wilson show the slightest


empathy for a colleague who was obviously in grief over the murder of a friend and presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy. Not for the first time, Pete Wilson looked cold and legalistic. More broadly, the episode typified the chronic inability of Pete Wilson and Willie Brown to communicate with each other. The two always managed to talk past each other. That they could not communicate did not matter much in 1968, but it mattered a great deal more than two decades later.

There is no recorded response from Brown, nor did Brown profess to remember it when interviewed for this book.[37] At the time, Brown was busy focusing on the upcoming convention, and he considered Pete Wilson too minor a character to pay him much attention.

Traveling to Chicago in July, Willie Brown took his seat on the Convention Credentials Committee, the panel in charge of deciding who could be seated as a delegate. His seat put him at the center of a bitter battle for the soul of the Democratic Party that would have repercussions far beyond who was to be nominated for president. The Credentials Committee that year considered challenges from fifteen states, an unprecedented number.[38] At stake was whether the Democrats would become the party of racial diversity or continue to defend racial segregation. There could be no doubt which path Willie Brown wanted to take.

Blacks from the South came to Chicago challenging all-white delegations from their home states. Such challenges on racial grounds were virtually without historic precedent. The first challenge was to President Johnson's home state delegation led by Texas Governor John B. Connally. The challenge to Connally was led by maverick Senator Ralph Yarborough, an antiwar senator and a sharp thorn in Johnson's side. Yarborough and his delegation backed McCarthy and sought to eject Connally and his delegates from the convention. For Willie Brown, it was a heaven-sent opportunity.

New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes chaired the hearings and let Willie Brown lead the interrogation of the delegation from Brown's native Texas.[39] Brown exacted a measure of revenge for the segregation of his youth. As the lead inquisitor of Will Davis, the Texas Democratic state party chairman, Brown branded the delegation as nothing but "the alter ego of Governor John Connally," in essence calling Davis a shill for Connally. In response, the Texans invoked the Alamo, Davey Crockett, and Sam Houston. But the wiry black lawyer, who had grown up as "Brookie" on the sandy streets of Mineola, Texas, relentlessly pressed the Texans about reports of ballots burned to keep Latinos and blacks from voting. Brown pressed Davis on whether local Democratic delegate selection conventions had been "managed" to exclude blacks and Latinos.[40] Brown put his party's dirt on the table for the world to see.

The fact that it was Texas, the home state of the incumbent U.S. president in the national convention of his own party, counted for nothing with Willie Brown, but it counted for everything with the Credentials Committee. Al-


though Lyndon Johnson was no longer seeking the presidential nomination, he kept a heavy hand on the course of the convention. The Texas challenge was turned aside, and Connally's delegates were ordered seated. Brown was among those signing a minority report appealing the decision to the convention floor, setting the stage for an even bigger fight.

Next came the challenge to Georgia, the most contentious fight of all at the Credentials Committee.[41] The delegation was led by segregationist governor Lester G. Maddox, a crudely racist politician whose election trademark was an ax handle he had used to threaten blacks at a chain of chicken restaurants he owned. Months earlier Maddox had sat in his statehouse office under heavy armed guard as the funeral procession of Martin Luther King Jr. passed by the Georgia state Capitol. He sat in fear that such a large congregation would somehow turn on him. Maddox became one of the living symbols of the rot in the Democratic Party.

Julian Bond, a black Georgia state legislator, challenged the all-white Maddox delegation and found a ready ally in Brown. "When the Georgia delegation appeared before the Credentials Committee, he was a strong champion. He was outspoken—a real good soldier, a good man to have on your side," Bond remembered.[42] Brown again took the lead inquisitor position on the Credentials Committee, questioning the white Georgians on why they had excluded blacks. "I really had a great time doing that cross examination. We threw Lester Maddox out of the Democratic Convention and we seated Julian Bond's delegation in 1968," Brown recalled years later, his memory flawed about the result.[43] In truth, Willie Brown was no match for Lyndon Johnson in the game of inside politics. The Credentials Committee ended up recommending a solution pleasing no one: seating both Georgia delegations and splitting their votes evenly. Both sides were angry at the recommendation, and both sides appealed their case to the full convention.[44]

More challenges followed against white delegations from Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, and other states. With the party increasingly fractured over the racial composition of the delegations, the ultimate showdown would have to be at the convention itself.

Paralleling the credentials panel, the platform committee was deeply divided over the Vietnam War. That decision, too, would have to be made by the full convention.

When the convention convened August 26, 1968, in Chicago, the platform fight and credential challenges were the political story inside the convention hall. But chaos on the streets outside overwhelmed convention politics. Chicago police officers plunged into crowds of antiwar protesters, beating them bloody as television cameras beamed the grisly scenes into American living rooms. Those caught up in the melee were not just protesters but delegates, campaign workers, and journalists who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. The acrid smell of tear gas wafted into the convention hall as the Democratic Party broke apart.


Inside the increasingly unruly convention, the Texas challenge was the first taken up for debate and vote. All but one of the 174 Californians followed Willie Brown's lead and voted to eject Connally from the convention. The one California delegate who went his own way was Eugene Wyman, a politically well-connected Los Angeles attorney who supported Humphrey. Wyman voted against the rest of the California delegates, but he was on the winning side at the convention. The Texas challenge was quashed on a vote of 2,368¼ to 956¾ (some delegates held fractional votes), and Connally's Texas delegation was seated.[45] Next came the knotty Georgia challenge. Again, the California delegation voted 173 to 1 to follow Willie Brown's recommendation to seat Bond's delegation and eject Maddox's. But both Bond's and Maddox's efforts to toss each other from the convention failed. Both delegations were seated, following the split recommendation of the Credentials Committee. As they went down in defeat, the Californians led a chant of "Julian Bond! Julian Bond!" with a fervor that caught on among other delegations who joined in the chant.[46]

Other challenges to all-white delegations were taken up one by one and defeated. At the last minute South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a newcomer to the national stage, made a largely symbolic bid to become Kennedy's inheritor. McGovern asked the Kennedy delegates to vote for him for president, but he stood no chance of success. But helping his future prospects, McGovern supported all of the credential challenges against all-white delegations. Humphrey had opposed all but one of the challenges.[47]

As it turned out, the Kennedy delegates from California each went their own way, voting for whom they pleased, unable to wield their 174 votes—the largest of any state—as a bloc to influence the course of the disastrous convention. On the losing side in nearly every fight at the convention, the California delegates approached the vote for a presidential nominee almost as an afterthought. By then the leader of the delegation, Unruh, did not much care who his delegates voted for. Unruh could not have controlled the delegation at that point even if he had wanted to, and he did not want to. The dispirited Californians split their vote, with fourteen for Humphrey, fifty-one for McGovern, ninety-one for McCarthy, and seventeen for Channing Phillips, a black minister from the District of Columbia, the first black to have his name put forward for president at a major party convention. Phillips's nomination was designed to embarrass Humphrey, but of course it went nowhere. Willie Brown voted for Phillips, although he had scarcely heard of him before arriving in Chicago for the convention. Asked years later why he voted for Phillips, Brown replied, "Just for the hell of it."[48] Unruh, the most powerful Democrat in California, voted for Eugene McCarthy, a candidate he had previously considered a wimp. It was Unruh's ultimate slap at Humphrey.[49]

As Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Humphrey had defended Johnson's failed Vietnam policies. He could never quite free himself of the war, and


his support for it infuriated the New Left activists outside the hall and the Kennedy and McCarthy delegates inside.

The three-day convention was an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats. The televised spectacle of riots outside and political chaos inside was not one to inspire confidence in the Democratic Party's candidates for president and vice president. It came to its foregone conclusion, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic presidential candidate. Humphrey left Chicago politically mauled and heading a deeply fractured party.

In the postconvention gloom, the remnants of Kennedy's California organization drifted apart. The Kennedy leaders had little enthusiasm for Humphrey. Typical was Gerald Hill, president of the California Democratic Council, who argued that local candidates should flee Humphrey because identification with him would only hasten their own defeat.[50]

But notably, Phillip Burton was mentioned in The Washington Post as being among the few prominent California Democrats vigorously supporting Humphrey.[51] The concept of Richard Nixon winning the presidency was truly appalling to the liberal congressman. Burton prevailed on Unruh and San Francisco Mayor Alioto—who both aspired to be governor—to serve as cochairs of the Humphrey campaign in California. Fortunately for the campaign, the two rivals remained four hundred miles apart, Unruh in Los Angeles and Alioto in San Francisco.[52] Unruh remained disengaged for the remainder of the campaign.

Willie Brown came away from the Chicago convention on the losing side of every vote, but he had tasted the national stage and the spectacle of presidential politics. He had been center stage during the greatest upheaval of the Democratic Party in this century. The battle was not over, no matter what the outcome of the November presidential election. Brown fully intended to stay on stage.

There is no evidence that Willie Brown did much, if anything, to advance the presidential candidacy of Hubert Humphrey. What little statewide campaign activity Brown conducted was on behalf of the U.S. Senate candidacy of Democrat Alan Cranston. Brown lent his name to a fund-raising appeal on behalf of Cranston led by Dianne Feinstein but had minimal involvement in statewide campaigns.[53]

With the Legislature adjourned for the year, Brown mostly stuck to his home base in San Francisco. He appeared at black political forums in San Francisco to talk about parochial issues and at a city planning commission meeting to urge that it set aside more open spaces in the urban environment. Brown got in a tiff with Alioto when the mayor suggested that John Dearman use "the back door" if Dearman wanted to see him about the open space idea. "As a black man, I resent that statement," Brown fumed, demanding an apology for his friend and law partner. Alioto curtly refused: "I rejected the assemblyman's request because it was made in bad faith. When I made


the comment I didn't even know Mr. Dearman was black, and Mr. Brown knows full well I meant no racial implications."[54]

In short, Willie Brown went back to being Assemblyman Brown—for the moment. Among his obligations was attending to his own reelection. Brown's Republican opponent that fall, businessman James Walker, stood no chance of beating Brown and was virtually ignored by the San Francisco newspapers. Brown had a far more interesting opponent on the Left: Kathleen Cleaver, the "minister of information" for the Black Panthers and the wife of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.[55] Running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, Kathleen Cleaver pressed Brown for failing to embrace a more militant black agenda. Her campaign leaflets were full of invective against Willie Brown:


Willie Brown has consistently refused to relate to the issues of police harassment, intimidation, murder and the lawless violence directed against Black People and other minorities. Willie Brown's refusal to speak out against the incarceration of the most profound political spokesmen for Black Liberation (Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver & Bobby Seale) helps demonstrate his asperations [sic] within the Democratic Party which have separated him from the needs of his community. Why hasn't Willie used his political position to stop police brutality and intimidation? ASK HIM.[56]

Brown bent as far as he could to speak the language of black militancy without embracing it. But his comments that dreary fall again raised the hackles of his white Assembly colleagues and and would haunt him for decades. The comment most repeated in later years by his critics and enemies was Brown's praise that summer for black Olympic track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos.[57] The two athletes raised clenched fists during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during their medal award ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics. In one of those instances in which Brown was too clever for his own good, he said of the two athletes, "They will be known forever as two niggers who upset the 1968 Olympic Games. I'd rather have them known for that than as two niggers who win two medals."

But as white politicians were castigating him, Brown was trying to neutralize black militants in his district. In one of the odder events of a hugely strange year, Brown voluntarily subjected himself in October to a "trail" by the Black Panthers to decide whether he was an "Uncle Tom."[58] Teenagers at predominantly black Balboa High School in San Francisco served as the jury, and a pair of Black Panthers "prosecuted" Brown. The San Francisco Chronicle covered the "trial."

Brown subjected himself to the potential humiliation, and in his unique way was offering an olive branch to the Panthers. He reasoned that lending them a measure of legitimacy by engaging them in debate might make it harder for them to preach violence. He was also testing whether he still had


legitimacy in the black community. "It was a good test for me to make sure that I still had the right to go back to the barbershop. And that's important, and I still do that with some regularity, except that I don't go on trial anymore," said Brown.[59] Besides, the attacks of the Panthers could only help Brown in the white community and with white politicians.

Acting as his own defense attorney, Brown emotionally recalled the indignities of his youth. He told the Balboa High teenagers about growing up in Mineola shining shoes and how old white men threw him quarters in a spittoon. It was an experience far different than anything they had known in the city. "When that kind of indignity is dealt one human being by another, you don't forget it soon," he told the "jury." His Black Panther prosecutors asked if he was a "black militant" and he replied, yes, "if that means I'm for change. But not if it means shooting folks. Anytime there have been gun confrontations, the black folks have lost."[60]

Then Brown turned the tables on the Panthers, asserting with no evidence: "White folks control it [the Black Panthers]. White people make most of the decisions." Brown came close to embracing the threat of violence as an avenue of change: "Peaceful changes are possible, but we don't want to rule out revolution and violence because that's the nature of things today. And besides I don't want the white folks to ever think that things might not change that way. They ought to have it held over their heads." That was as close as Brown would ever come to crossing that line. The high school class took two minutes to deliberate and render its verdict. Willie Brown was found innocent of being an "Uncle Tom."

In November the voters of San Francisco rendered their verdict, returning Brown to Sacramento for a third term in the Assembly. But the political landscape was going to be radically different when Brown returned to the Capitol to take his seat. Republican Richard Nixon was the new president, and in California the Republicans had seized a one-vote majority in the Assembly.[61] Big Daddy Jesse Marvin Unruh was out as Speaker, and an era was over in California politics. Another era—Willie Brown's era—was around the corner.


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