Called "a world-class power broker" by the Washington Post, Robert Brown has been a sought-after counselor for an impressive array of the famous and powerful, including every American president since John F. Kennedy. But as a child born into poverty in the 1930s, Robert was raised by his grandmother to think differently about success. For example, "The best way to influence others is to be helpful," she told him. And, "You can’t go wrong by doing right."
Fueled by these lessons on humble, principled service, Brown went on to play a pivotal, mostly unseen role alongside the great and the powerful of our time: trailing the mob in 1950s Harlem with a young Robert F. Kennedy; helping the white corporate leadership at Woolworth integrate their lunch counters; channeling money from American businesses to the Civil Rights movement; accompanying Coretta Scott King, at her request, to Memphis the day after her husband had been shot; advising Richard Nixon on how to support black entrepreneurship; becoming the only person allowed to visit Nelson Mandela in Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town.
Full of unbelievable moments and reminders that the path to influence runs through a life of generosity, YOU CAN'T GO WRONG DOING RIGHT blends a heartwarming, historically fascinating account with memorable lessons that will speak to the dreamer in all of us.
|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
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You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Give
I grew up with my brother, bill, in my grandparents’ house in High Point, North Carolina. We lived in Burns Hill, one of the poorest of the colored neighborhoods in town. White folks had homes along paved streets. Blacks lived where the pavement ended. Our humble wood-frame bungalow was located at 1309 East Commerce Street, where there was neither commerce nor a street.
The Hill was mostly peaceful in my 1940s boyhood, but it was not a place that inspired much hope. Families were from the working poor. Most scraped by on skimpy earnings, but they took care of each other, sharing what little they had because serving others was how we all survived.
One day when I was not yet ten years old, a man reeking of sour wine and wet garbage walked up to our porch. I was sitting on our house’s wooden front steps, and my “Mama,” my grandmother, was in her chair on the porch. The man stood at the bottom of the steps, unsteady on his feet and red-eyed, but cautious and respectful.
“I ain’t had nothin’ to eat for two days, Miss Nellie,” he said. “I don’t have no money to buy food.”
I stood up, suspicious of the beggar and protective of my grandmother. But Mama had no fear of him.
“Come on in here, boy,” she said to the man.
He climbed the stairs with surprising speed, followed her into the house, and took a seat at the kitchen table. Mama went right to work. She broke off chunks from a huge pan of homemade bread and dished up a bowl of hot beans. The man ate until his belly stopped growling. Then he let fly a roaring belch, stood up from the table, gently placed his bowl in the sink, and said: “I sure do appreciate it, Miss Nellie. The Lord will bless you.”
Mama turned from the sink and sighed. The man had to know he was in for one of her church lectures, but no doubt he’d figured the meal would be worth it.
“Do the right thing, now, and get your life straight,” Mama told him, looking him in the eye. “Go to church on Sunday and your life will change for the better.”
He bowed his head, accepting his penance, and then made his way out the door and down the steps with newfound energy. Mama washed his bowl and returned to her chair on the porch. I took my place on the steps. After a while, I gathered the courage to say what was on my mind.
“Mama, why on earth do you give our food to these people who spend their days and nights drinkin’ and sleepin’ in the street, when you and Daddy and Bill and me work so hard to put it on the table?”
My question must have touched something in her. Mama waved for me to come up and sit in the chair with her. When I’d settled in, she told me a story from the Bible, of the time when Jesus knocked on someone’s door for help, but they turned Him away because He was dressed in rags.
“If I never teach you anything else,” she said, “I want to teach you that one thingyou never know which way the Lord will come to you. He will test you to see if you follow His teachings. So, life is all about giving, sharing, and serving others. If you give whatever you can, the Lord will give you more than you will ever need. He will take you up so high you won’t believe it.”
Mama was wound up. I listened as a life’s worth of lessons poured out of her.
“Son, you don’t have to be rich to give. We aren’t rich, but we had food in the pot today. The Lord provided that food, and he provided it to me so I could share it with others. He gave us enough to share. That’s what you should do with your life, Bobby. Whatever you get, make sure you try to help somebody else with it, because the Lord gives it to you so you can give it to somebody else.”
Miss Nellie Brown was the light that woke me up in the morning and put me to bed at night. I adored her and took her words as gospel to live by. She had so much wisdom, so much compassion. Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
My grandmother took in my brother and me shortly after we arrived in this world. Our natural birth mother, Gracie Mae Marshall, ran away from home early in her teens, and we were never clear on how she survived during those years. She’d been sixteen when Bill was born, and I arrived two years later, on February 26, 1935. For most of my childhood, Gracie Mae was like an older sister or cousin who rarely came around.
We called our grandparents “Mama” and “Daddy,” throughout our lives. My grandfather, Marcus Lafayette Brown, worked in the boiler room of one of High Point’s many furniture factories. A quiet and humble man by nature, he usually worked late shifts, so he left most of the grandchild-rearing to our grandmother. I felt blessed to have them as my parents, and couldn’t have loved them more.
Before we complicated her life, Mama had worked full-time at the Southern Railway station in High Point. She cleaned the station and called the trains, shouting out arrival and departure times for all to hear. Mama was well known at church and at the railway station for her booming voice. Some claimed they could hear Mama’s train calls five stops up and five stops down the line.
She had the same reach when calling us home from our ball fields, creek explorations, and friends’ homes. You could be six blocks away and underwater and still hear Miss Nellie calling us home to supper.
“Billeeeeeeeeeee! Bobbeeeeee! Time for dinnahhhhhhh, boys!”
We scooted, too. Even the other kids listened to Mama. She had this air of authority that said, There will be no shady business when I’m around.
Mama was an imposing woman. Big-boned and straight-backed, she had a regal bearing, no matter that she wore thrift shop dresses sometimes held together with safety pins. Whether singing in our church’s gospel choir or canning vegetables, she called out Jesus with the best of them, and she set our moral compasses with lessons from the Bible.
The power and clarity of her voice certainly carried me a long way. Whenever my anger threatened to explode, her lessons of faith would come to me and help me redirect the rage toward positive action. I could well have ended up in prison, or worse, if it were not for all the Godly messages my Mama put in my heart as I was growing up.
By most expectations, I wasn’t ever supposed to get off the Hill. In fact, there were times when it looked like I wouldn’t make it past childhood at all. I coughed and wheezed throughout most days, and on two or three occasions, these fits led to pneumonia and weeks of confinement to my bed. Today, I know the coughing came from asthma, but back then, black children who coughed and wheezed weren’t taken to the doctor. We were just considered poor and frail.
I was so skinny and pale, the other kids called me “Light Bread.” The nickname dogged me through elementary school. Since I lacked physical strength, I learned to get along through gentle persuasion and negotiation. The role of peacemaker suited me. If another boy got mad because he didn’t have enough marbles, I’d give him some of mine. I wanted everybody to be happy. When kids couldn’t agree on whether to play baseball or go swimming, they left it up to me to decide. It’s funny how our childhood ways offer previews into our adult lives.
To be truthful, I also had a childhood bodyguard who protected me from bullies as well as snakes and other dangers. My older brother, Bill, was nicknamed the “Brown Bomber” from early childhood. Bill was stump-necked, thick-shouldered, and fast with his fists. Later in his Air Force career, he became the middleweight champ of the Fifth Division. No one messed with Bill.
My brother and I spent at least part of every day in the garden, busting our butts to raise vegetables and fruit. While other kids in our neighborhood were playing stickball or hanging out, we had to hoe, weed, and pick. Mama had a knack for drawing spiritual and life lessons out of everyday experiences, especially gardening. Every spring, we’d go to Hauser’s farm goods and garden store on Wrenn Street to buy seeds and fertilizer for the garden. Mama always made sure we bought two or three pounds of black mustard seed, which came in a brown paper sack.
Table of Contents
Foreword Stedman Graham xi
Prologue: An Unexpected Visit 1
Chapter 1 You Don't Have to Be Rich to Give 9
Chapter 2 The Lord Doesn't Make Mistakes 23
Chapter 3 Protect and Serve 35
Chapter 4 Fighting Through Dark Times 44
Chapter 5 Quiet Victories 57
Chapter 6 The Strength to Serve 71
Chapter 7 Violence Begets Violence 88
Chapter 8 Secret Weapon 101
Chapter 9 Crossing the Political Divide 117
Chapter 10 Called to Serve 129
Chapter 11 Working Within the System 143
Chapter 12 Something Bigger Than You 152
Chapter 13 The Lord Will Take Care of the Rest 160
Chapter 14 Friends on the Enemies List 166
Chapter 15 Life Is Not a Smooth Ride 176
Chapter 16 A Righteous Cause 187
Chapter 17 Confronting the Crocodile 207
Conclusion: Smuggling and Other Good Deeds 225