Mayor Willie L. Brown was a born fighter. The first African American mayor of San Francisco grew up in Mineola, Texas, approximately two thousand miles away from the Bay Area. At the time of Brown’s birth in 1934, Texas was a deeply segregated state. In Mineola, a single railroad track divided black communities from white communities. Violent white mobs would prevent African Americans from voting, a direct act of racial oppression. The Great Depression and entrenched racial discrimination made obtaining employment difficult for Willie’s father, Lewis Brown. Lewis found work as a railroad porter and was absent for much of Willie’s childhood. Mayor Brown’s mother and grandmother, Millie Collins Boyd and Anne Lee Collins respectively, raised Willie and his four siblings. Brown credits his grandmother for shaping his strong work ethic, civic engagement, and sense of greater responsibility.
From a young age, Willie Brown had the strength to challenge racial discrimination. Like many American families during the Great Depression, the Brown family struggled to put food on the table. Brown worked as a field hand, janitor, and fry cook. To make extra money, he helped manage a small betting and drinking hall with his family. This was short-lived, however, as the local police raided the Brown’s family business, searching the premises for illegal moonshine. Willie stood up to the police officers and demanded they come back with a warrant. It was an early illustration of the resolve and composure that would define his political career.
Willie decided to move to San Francisco in 1951 with his uncle. He sought to further his education and applied to Stanford University. Willie didn’t have the necessary scholastic qualifications required for admission, but Brown impressed his admission advisor with his ambition and charisma and he ended up helping the young man to enroll at San Francisco State University.
Brown worked as a doorman, a janitor, and a shoe salesman to pay for his tuition. He was initially motivated to graduate with a teaching credential and work as a math teacher. That all changed, however, when Willie joined the Young Democrats organization on campus. The organization connected him with John Burton, a future political ally in the California legislature. Willie decided to pursue a degree in political science and volunteer at the NAACP’s San Francisco branch. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State, Brown earned a law degree from UC Hastings Law School.
Drawn to political fights over racial segregation and discrimination, Brown battled against a city housing developer who refused to sell homes in Forest Knolls, an area west of Twin Peaks, to African Americans. Brown’s thorough political involvement inspired him to run for the State Assembly in 1962. He lost his first race, but returned in 1964 with more experience and won. Brown was only one of four African American members of the 1964 State Assembly.
Willie Brown served in the California State Assembly from 1964–1995, where he proved himself to be a prolific and pragmatic lawmaker in Sacramento. By 1969, only five years since he first got elected, he was elevated to the role of Democratic Party whip of the state assembly. In 1975, Willie wrote, lobbied, and passed the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, legalizing homosexuality in California. The bill cemented his legacy as a civil rights leader in the LGBTQ community. By 1981, Brown became the first African American Speaker of the Assembly, and was considered one of the most formidable and powerful state legislators in the country. He served as Assembly leader until his 1995 San Francisco mayoral run.
Brown was twice elected mayor of San Francisco with massive support from the city’s African American and LGBTQ communities. His commitment to civil rights and pragmatic governing style resonated with many San Francisco voters. During his tenure, the Brown administration spent millions of dollars addressing the city’s key long-term issue: homelessness. He created new shelters, supportive housing, and addiction treatment centers for the homeless. Brown, like many mayors before and after him, saw the need for much more federal assistance in addressing homelessness. Among his many other lasting contributions, Brown’s leadership ushered in a new phase of building in San Francisco that helped shape its current skyline.
After his eight years in the mayoral office, Brown co-hosted a morning radio show with Will Durst on San Francisco Air America Radio, and still serves as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He also established The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service at San Francisco State University. In 2013, the western span of the Bay Bridge was named in his honor. Mayor L. Willie Brown’s legacy has inspired new generations of progressive leadership. His fighting spirit continues to shape the character of San Francisco.
— Julio Ceja, Ashley Cruz, Matt Chiodo, and Madison Owens
Gordon, Rachel. “The Mayor’s Legacy.” SFGate. 4 Jan 2004.
“San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown challenges SFSU Class of 2001.” SFSU Press Release. 28 May 2001.
“San Francisco Willie Brown comes home to roost at S.F. State Ex-mayor sets up leadership center at alma mater.” SF Chronicle. 8 Nov 2007.