The Endearing Legacy of Tyrone Brooks
Bridging the Gap From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter
In 1967, Rev. Hosea Williams, a trusted aide of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., introduced his 21-year-old protégé, Tyrone Brooks, to Dr. King, hoping to get King’s approval to hire the young man whom Williams was grooming for civil rights work. King told Williams that he did not do the hiring and firing at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The organization’s Vice President, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, discharged those duties.
Williams took Brooks to Abernathy’s office, where they found Abernathy with a platter of ribs from the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack. Williams put the employment application next to Abernathy’s platter of ribs and told him he needed his signature to hire Brooks, if not, Brooks was on his way to the airport where he would board a plane to New York, and they may never get him back to work for SCLC.
“Now you got him,” Abernathy said, signing the document without reading it. Since that day in 1967, the name Tyrone Brooks has been synonymous with SCLC.
Less than 12 months later, a projectile struck Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the jaw, launched if the truth be told, by an unknown assassin. Many of King’s trusted aides left the organization for less confrontational pursuits than those engaged in by the King administration. Williams and Brooks stayed with Dr. King’s program. They had signed on for the duration — until freedom comes. Other key aides left SCLC or fled, fearful that the government would not stop with King.
Only the militant cadre remained: Abernathy, Williams, Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Brooks, and a few staffers like Ralph Worrell and Fred Taylor.
Brooks and Williams met around 1954 in Warrenton, Georgia, on a farm owned by Ronie Cody, Jr., Brooks’ uncle. Brooks was 13 years of age. Williams had recently completed work on a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Morris Brown College. He had moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he was rejected for civil rights work by the legendary civil rights leader, W. W. Law, and the Chatham County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization told Williams he was too militant for the NAACP.
Undaunted, Williams joined forces with the new kid on the block, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the days before, Interstates 75 and 16, Williams traveled the back roads from Savannah to Atlanta doing civil rights organizing.
One day he stopped by Brooks’ uncle’s farm and met the young Tyrone Brooks. Williams’ boisterous persona, a colorful vocabulary, and rapid rhetorical speech captivated Brooks’ attention. Being a country boy, Brooks learned how to drive at an early age. He would chauffeur Williams around Warrenton, Savannah, and South Carolina, attending freedom school lectures.
Brooks became a volunteer after finishing high school at Boggs Academy in Keysville, Georgia, a private boarding school for Black students. Brooks had a passion for civil rights activism. His eyes had seen injustice, his ears had heard about the Moore’s Ford Bridge Massacre, and his belly burned with a yearning for the Constitution framers “self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
To obtain those self-evident truths for Black people, Brooks did whatever Williams told him he needed doing. And Williams, when Brooks came of age, made sure that SCLC would compensate Brooks for his yeoman’s service to civil rights.
In the days following the murder of Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference girded its loins around Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr., Dr. King’s chosen successor.
Brooks worked under the tutelage of Williams. They were inseparable, traveling the southeast poking their noses in White folks’ business at the behest of local Black communities that felt powerless in the face of injustice and racism.
When Brooks came aboard, King was working on the crowning jewel of his plan to liberate Black Americans from the vestiges of enslavement and Jim Crowism. He wanted to dramatize how poorly the United States treated over half of the country, many of whom were Black, an equal number of them, Whites from Appalachia.
After winning passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rev. C. T. Vivian told Dr. King that he had moved the country further than any Black leader since Fredrick Douglass pushed the Abolitionists to outlaw enslavement in the nation.
Vivian was so sure that the government had given more concessions than it ever would again. He left SCLC in 1965 to work on pragmatic programs, activities like the forerunner of the Upward Bound Program, that would prepare young Blacks to navigate in the world of education and commerce.
King believed that having equal protection under the law and the right to vote was not enough to sustain a Black population not compensated for the years of free labor. He conceived a Poor People’s Campaign to force the federal government to make good on that promissory note he spoke about on the Mall in 1963.
As Abernathy gained his footing as the leader of the premier civil rights organization in the country, he searched for ways to keep SCLC’s work before a public bewildered and hurt over the murder of the King of “non-violent protest.
Abernathy vowed to erect King’s Tent City on the Mall in the District of Columbia and invited people living under the poverty level to camp out until the federal government moved them into the American dream of a home, job, food, and medical care.
In the early days of Abernathy’s presidency, he appointed Brooks Special Assistant to the President and National Public Affairs Director. Brooks public announcements from Washington, Atlanta, Montgomery, and wherever SCLC was demonstrating for equal justice under the law kept the legacy of SCLC alive.
As a high school junior, this writer, listening on WIBB-Radio in Macon, Georgia, to Brooks reporting on the activism of SCLC, felt confident that though the government had slain the “Dreamer,” the Dream yet lived. Brooks rallied the troops, keeping their morale up, and during our darkest days, kept hope alive that, as King prophesied, “We as a people, will get to the promised land.”
When the Poor People’s Campaign bogged down during a torrential rainy season in the spring of 1968, Brooks filed reports about the conditions demonstrators confronted from the elements of nature. He spent 30 days jailed in the District of Columbia and Lorton, Virginia, because of demonstrations and sit-ins during the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City encampment. Others arrested during the Poor People’s Campaign were Abernathy, Williams, Willie Bolden, Jimmy Wells, Bobby Nelson, and Henry Brown Lee.
The Poor People’s Campaign was not the first time Brooks went to jail for civil disobedience. His first arrest came in 1960 at age 18 when he picketed to bring attention to the segregated school system, theaters, and businesses in his hometown of Warrenton.
Brooks has a lengthy arrest record. Various police blotters reveal arrests in Jackson, Mississippi, Farmersville, California, Douglasville, Georgia, Marks, Mississippi, Washington, D. C., and New York City. He and Williams organized a Poor People’s March down Wall Street in the heart of American wealth and luxury. Brooks and Williams received jail time for sticking their fingers in the eyes of Wall Street financiers.
Two years after King’s assassination, government-sponsored violence against the Black community was everywhere. Federal and state police powers began an oppressive campaign targeted at Black leaders, Black colleges, and other institutions that undergirded the Black society. Abernathy believed SCLC was obligated to confront this repression. The feds, probably led by the FBI, apparently, hell-bent on repressing Black movements for inclusion in American society.
Abernathy instructed Williams and Brooks to organize “A March Against Repression” in Georgia. The two men conceived a plan to rally the student body at each Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Georgia.
They visited the HBCU campuses and joined student leaders. Increasingly college campuses were angry over the State of Mississippi’s invasion of the Jackson State College campus, now Jackson State University, and the subsequent discharge of weapons into a female dormitory, causing the death of several Black women students.
The March Against Oppression and Repression started one April day in 1970 at Albany State College, now Albany State University. A contingent of Albany State students and community leaders, led by Williams, marched to Fort Valley State College, now Fort Valley State University. This writer was a freshman on the Dean’s List, the baseball squad, and the debate team at FVSC.
The marchers reached Fort Valley State around nightfall. They received dinner and housing for the night. Williams journeyed a few miles south to Perry, Georgia. He held a mass meeting to recruit marchers for the next leg from Fort Valley to Macon. The Perry, Georgia police chief did not “cotton to” Williams being in his town stirring up the local Blacks, so he found cause to arrest Williams. The police held Williams in jail overnight. During a Mass Meeting at Bethel Christian Episcopal Church in Macon, Williams later said that the deputies beat him that night worse than any whipping “My momma ever gave me.”
The following morning, Fort Valley State students gathered outside the student center waiting on Williams, unaware he had been arrested overnight in Perry, Georgia. There did not appear to be anyone in charge, other than student leaders, and they were bewildered about what they should do without Williams’ leadership.
Brooks did not arrive in Fort Valley with Williams the night before student leaders had assembled for their trek to Atlanta, about 135 miles away. Brooks found himself stuck for 45 days in the Covington, Georgia jail for demonstrating against harassment of school teachers. Henry Odum, a mean-spirited sheriff, as belligerent as any southern sheriff to Black demonstrators, had arrested Brooks.
Weeks before the March Against Oppression/Repression began, Williams asked Attorney Billy Randall out of Macon, Georgia, if he had any ideas about getting Brooks released from the Covington jail.
Randall drove over to Covington and spoke with a judge who ordered Randall out of his county. Years later, Randall would tell Brooks that he thought the Judge would kill him that night. Next, Williams asked Maynard Jackson, a young lawyer and Vice Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, to go over and secure Brooks’ release on bond. Jackson drove over to Covington, seeking to secure a bond. When he went back the next day to pay the bond, the Judge changed the bond amount. The constant back and forth over the amount of the bond went on for several days. The unflappable Jackson was frustrated. Jackson often boasted that he never lost a case, and he never did, but his silver tongue could not cut through the racial hatred that had hardened the heart of justice toward Brooks and the Black community he sought to free from racial tyranny.
Williams then called the legendary attorney Howard Moore, a persnickety lawyer, perhaps the dean of Black lawyers today. Moore, steeped in the mores of the south, was not about to play the “Keep that Nigger boy running” strategy employed by the Judge. Without stepping foot in Covington, Moore spoke with a Federal Judge in Atlanta, who told Moore to draft an order stating the actions he wanted the court to take. Moore walked from the federal court to his office in the Citizens Trust Bank Building and dictated an order for the immediate release of Brooks.
Then Moore walked the order back to the court. Without reading the proposed order, the Judge signed it and instructed his secretary to file it immediately. The US Marshal hand-delivered the order to the Sheriff, the Judge, and the court clerk in Covington, Georgia. As fate would have it, Brooks was released in time to drive down to Fort Valley to join the March Against Oppression/Repression.
Around noon, Williams appeared at the rally with a bull horn. He did not appear any worse for the abuse done to his body in the name of southern justice, more commonly known as keeping the Black man in his place.
Several hundred students followed Williams and Brooks from the Fort Valley State campus. Although this writer, barely 18 years old, did not have parental permission to leave school to hike to Atlanta. He figured he could make the trip and be back in school before his mom called to see how things were going.
Little did he know the plans called for the marchers to stop in Macon, Georgia, and spend the night in the sanctuary at Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where the writer had grown up. A church member recognized him and told him to take a group of guys down to the Shrimp Boat, run by another member, Willie Hill, and pick up some fried chicken Hill was donating to feed the marchers. Arriving at the Shrimp Boat, this writer found his mom, a school teacher, volunteering in the kitchen, frying chicken for the marchers. She approved of the March and his participation in it. Nevertheless, she instructed me to return to Fort Valley State the next day for classes.
The following morning, the marchers ate a hearty breakfast of grits, eggs, sausage, and toast, then headed up Pio Nono Avenue en route to Atlanta, where students from the Atlanta University Center and other civil rights activists joined them. This March against Oppression and Repression was the largest by SCLC in the early days post-Dr. King’s assassination.
My Uncle John was a big Tyrone Brooks fan. Uncle John worked at Armstrong Cork in Macon, Georgia. He was a true-believing union man, and once Brooks came to Macon to meet with Black employees at Armstrong Cork to help them strengthen their union. My uncle constantly encouraged me to meet Brooks. The opportunity never seemed to present itself for us to meet.
Then, during the summer of 1979, a group of community activists in Macon decided that what Macon needed was a demonstration to dramatize the lack of good-paying jobs for Blacks who were not school teachers or pastors of local Black churches.
These activists, led by Herbert Dennard, Robert Brown, Leroy Thomas, Rev. Henry C. Ficklin, and Elaine Lucas, reached out to Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery. They asked Dr. Lowery if he would come to Macon and organize a demonstration for jobs and economic parity.
They agreed to meet, and Dr. Lowery drove down to Macon with his trusted aide Tyrone Brooks. By this time, Hosea Williams, the movement rabble-rouser, had cast his lot in elective politics and served the community as a second-term member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
We met in the H & H Restaurant owned and operated by Louise Huxley and the only eatery in town where you could get a mason jar of lemonade or sweet southern iced tea with your meal. This writer was a working journalist and attended the first meeting to give coverage to this movement for change in Macon. But mid-way through the second meeting, Dr. Lowery looked my way and said, “If you came to write a story, you can leave. If you want to join us and work, you can’t write about anything that is said here.”
I chose to join the movement and helped plan what became the “Bring the Bacon to Macon” March without leaking any group plans. History records that Macon’s segregated employment and public accommodations policies disappeared following March, led by Lowery and Brooks. More Blacks received jobs as bank tellers, car sales associates, and high-paying factory jobs than at any period in Macon’s history.
After the March, Brooks returned to Macon several times to organize an SCLC chapter in Macon, installing Rev. Henry C. Ficklin as the chapter’s first president.
Although Brooks is not a lawyer, he did more than any Black member of the Georgia Bar to create a more diverse judiciary in Georgia. In 1988, he was the lead Plaintiff in Brooks v. Georgia, which challenged the lack of Black judges in Georgia. For strategic reasons, Brooks filed his lawsuit in the US District Court, Southern District in Savannah. Brooks knew better than the lawyers that you had to file a test case in a jurisdiction where you could find a favorable judge to hear the case.
In 1992 when this case came up for final hearing, this writer was an officer in the Gate City Bar Association and participated in the cross-examination of defense witnesses. Other members of Gate City Bar assisting this effort were Herald Alexander and Randall Mangham. The Gate City trio was dubbed “Shadrack, Meshack, and that Bad Negro.”
Following this hearing, Brooks entered an out-of-court settlement with Georgia Governor Zell Miller. Today, Georgia has more Black judges than any state in the country. To the extent that there are Blacks on the courts today is a testament to the foresight and dedicated hard work of Tyrone Brooks.
A court case this writer participated in as one of Plaintiff’s counsels, Coleman v. Georgia, which sought to force Georgia to change from the flag of the Confederacy, was dismissed from court for lack of standing. Working the political angle from his position in the Georgia Legislature, Brooks influenced Georgia Governor Roy Barnes to change the flag to be more acceptable to Georgia’s Black citizens.
To know Tyrone Brooks is to understand the civil rights mission that called him was not to make Negroes upwardly mobile. In the days of Dr. King, Brooks undertook a task to break the legal chains that bound Black people to a subservient role, no matter their economic or professional mobility successes.
Brooks charity began at home, demonstrating for a better Warrenton. But he did not stop there. In 1975, Brooks journeyed to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to support Native Americans massacred by federal authorities like the government had done there in 1896. Brooks again was arrested. This time along with Abernathy, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, Dick Gregory, and Williams. That same year Brooks traveled to Helena, Montana, to support the Flathead Native Americans in their objection to federal government harassment.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, Brooks and other protesters were arrested for picketing in front of the White House protesting the Apartheid government in South Africa for the massacre of students at the Soweto township. The Thanksgiving Day protest was the first major demonstration in the United States against the racist regime in South Africa, which called for the divestiture of private and government funds from the South Africa economy and free democratic elections.
While history records that these two initiatives came to pass, in the mid-1970s, these were uncomfortable conversations. Brooks pushed the envelope and encouraged a national campaign calling for White South Africans to free Mandela and demanded the vote for Black South Africans.
There is little wonder why Brooks does not receive good press in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 1978, Brooks set up a picket line in front of the AJC, demanding that the newspaper hire more African Americans and women. Following this movement, the AJC hired Ray West, the father of recording artist Kanye West, as their first Black photographer.
The following year, Brooks continued his assault on the AJC. This time he demanded they contract to do business with Black-owned businesses, open accounts in Black-owned banks, and that the paper support the United Negro College Fund. If you believe the newspaper of Henry Grady is a model corporate citizen today, now you know who made them, in the vernacular of today, “Woke.”
In 1982 Brooks used his legislative prowess to introduce a bill calling for the divestment of state government funds from the Apartheid government that ruled South Africa if they did not free Nelson Mandela and grant the vote to Black South Africans.
That same year, Brooks marched to Washington, D. C. demanding that the U. S. Department of Justice defend Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder from voter fraud allegations in Aliceville, Alabama. Also, in 1982, in conjunction with SCLC, Brooks pushed President Ronald Regan to sign a 25-year extension of the 1965 Voter Rights Act. It was this extension that the Supreme Court gutted in the Shelby v. Holder case last decade.
For most of his life, Brooks has gotten in between abusive powers and the people; and along the way, he has incurred the wrath of harsh power brokers.
Brooks believes a federal prosecution and tax evasion conviction grew from not letting a 75-year-old murder case die along with the Black people who died on the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe, Georgia, on July 25, 1946. The events of that day were so shocking until they shook the conscience of Black people all over the state.
As a youngster, Dr. King learned about the Moore’s Bridge Massacre, and, as an adult leader of SCLC, he pledged SCLC resources to get to the bottom of what happened. Over the years, Brooks has been relentlessly pushing federal officials to release documents that could shed light on who murdered these upstanding citizens.
Brooks believes a member of a prominent, suspender-wearing, tobacco-spitting Georgia family committed these murders. And because he would not let this murder die, he believed powerful state enemies caused the federal government to trump up charges against him, leading to a brief period in the federal prison.
If Brooks is the discredited person the government wants us to believe he is, he would not still be on the battlefield seeking justice for marginalized Americans. Like his previous 71 arrests for civil disobedience, the 72nd arrest on misuse of non-profit funds is legal fiction spun to stop Tyrone from agitating for the truth about the Moore’s Bridge Massacre. Brooks’ legacy is a noble one of dogged and persistent determination in search of equality for God’s children, no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is the author of a book on Negro Leagues Baseball, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball. He writes feature stories for Black College Nines. Com. Harvey is a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, HBCU and PRO Sports Media Association, and the Legends Committee for the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. Harvey is an engaging speaker. Contact Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org.