From activist to civil servant to clandestine book runner, Robert Brown has led a life of service. And he’s not done.
He was a friend of Nelson Mandela. He helped Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow bring her husband’s body home. He was a businessman and held a senior position in the Nixon White House.
“ Robert J. Brown is certainly one of the most intriguing and important figures you’ve likely never heard of.”
Today, with the help of UPS, his foundation continues to deliver books – millions of them – to people in need around the world.
Robert J. Brown is certainly one of the most intriguing and important figures you’ve likely never heard of.
His remarkable journey started as a police officer in his hometown of High Point, North Carolina – he took time away from college to care for his ailing grandparents.
As a young black man in the 1950s, Brown’s job was to uphold the law where people with his skin color were barred from eating in many restaurants and sleeping in many hotels in the southern United States. Years later, he was jailed by police officers he once served alongside.
His experience easily could have fueled resentment. Instead, Brown used those moments and memories to shape his life’s work as an activist, political aide and lifelong humanitarian.
A front-row seat to history
To hear Brown tell it, any day you spend helping others is a good day. It’s why the boy who grew up in the heart of the Deep South, wearing hand-me-down clothes and reading tattered books, is now focused on delivering opportunity to places where so little exists.
“As my grandma said, ‘Everybody is going to die. The only thing that’s going to make a difference is how much you have served and how much you’ve given,’” Brown, now age 80, explained in an interview with Longitudes. “That has never left me. I wake up with that in the morning and I go to bed with that at night.”
Brown never realized that philosophy would give him a front-row seat to much of the history of the last century.
From High Point to the White House
Brown was arrested and jailed in High Point, a town that once made much of the furniture sold in the United States. His supposed crime? Disturbing the peace during a demonstration at a local restaurant that turned away black customers.
“I needed to stand up,” Brown said. “I couldn’t stand on the sidelines. You need to show people there’s going to be a better day.”
Brown went from putting people in jail to hearing the same bars close behind him. But his actions were instrumental in the integration of High Point establishments previously closed to blacks.
“ Everybody is going to die. What makes a difference is how much you’ve served and given.”
Brown built a following as a message maven. He was asked to perform PR consulting work for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Nixon liked him so much that it turned into a full-time position.
Brown then went home, only to see his role in Nixon’s orbit expand.
In 1968, as Special Assistant to President Nixon, Brown became the administration’s point man on civil rights and community relations.
“Whether you live in a wealthy community or a poor community, there are many things you can do,” Brown said. “You can find someone who is down on their luck, who doesn’t have basic necessities, who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next in their life.”
Moved by Mandela’s optimism
Those circumstances certainly described Nelson Mandela in 1987, when Brown visited him inside Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town.
Brown had traveled to South Africa with Coretta Scott King, having remained close to her in the years since the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Brown had traveled with and raised money for her late husband. And nearly two decades following her husband’s death, she turned to Brown because he had deep connections in the South African government and could help her secure a visa.
Together, Mrs. King and Brown went to ask the Mandela family how they could help. What Brown didn’t realize is just how close he would get to the eventual South African president.
Mandela wanted to personally thank Brown for taking his daughter and other family members back to the United States and helping them enroll in school there – at the request of Mandela’s wife.
“ (My mom said) That old raggedy book could be the thing that changes your life.”
Mandela asked Brown to give his regards to Rev. Billy Graham. Mandela lamented the dangers of communism. He wanted to know details about Dr. King’s life.
You’d think these were just two guys enjoying a casual conversation around the water cooler. At that point, Mandela had been in prison for 23 years, Brown said, allowed only to see immediate family.
Brown was moved by the optimism of a man serving out the best years of his life behind bars. Mandela talked about the good people in South Africa. He predicted peace between black and white South Africans. He spoke of a new day for his country, even while enduring decades in prison.
“He was so hopeful,” Brown recalled. “To find hope in a place like that, it was inspiring.”
Life as a book runner
South Africa left him with other memories, too – and one more role to add to his resume: clandestine book runner.
Brown had received permission from the South African Embassy to import clothes, but during apartheid, he was prohibited from taking in books for poor children.
Here’s how Brown got around the restrictions: A truck would take the books to the air freight terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. They’d pack the books on the plane, always putting the reading materials at the bottom of boxes containing clothes and shoes. As soon as the packages made it into South Africa, somebody on the other side would remove the books before being detected.
“ Of all the causes that have ignited his passion over the years, books is the one that stuck.”
Brown took this task upon himself after traveling to South Africa and learning that even the libraries lacked books. Yes, even the libraries. He couldn’t ignore the problem after seeing it with his own eyes.
He has since sent millions of books around the world as founder of the International BookSmart Foundation. The group’s mission, he says, is to “end book drought wherever it occurs in the world.”
“I discovered that the local school system was discarding thousands of discontinued books each year,” Brown said of when he returned to the United States from South Africa. “As the syllabuses changed and books were being removed from circulation, these old books were simply being thrown into landfills. I convinced the local school system to donate the discarded books.”
His organization is particularly concerned with reaching rural areas suffering from a chronic lack of resources. To help those communities, the International BookSmart Foundation procures and packs books for distribution in shipping containers. In the recipient nations, they partner with local organizations to ensure on-site delivery.
This is logistics at work.
“ I get a certain kind of charge out of books. I want everyone to know that feeling.”
Of all the causes that have ignited his passion over the years, books is the one that stuck.
“I was in the third or fourth grade. All we had were raggedy books, and I threw one of them on the floor in frustration,” he remembered. “My grandma wasn’t happy. She said, ‘Boy, you better pick that up. You better learn everything that’s in that book. That old raggedy book could be the thing that changes your life.’”
That was a turning point.
“From that day on, I lived in the library,” he said. “I get a certain kind of charge out of books. I want everyone to know that feeling.”
For Brown, books were a ticket out of a system stacked against him. The pictures they painted of distant lands and the ideas they fostered led him to places he never dreamed he would see and to people he never thought he would meet.
Through his foundation, books will continue to bring hope and inspiration to those who need it most.
For a man whose life is measured by servitude, one wonders why one of those books hasn’t been written about Robert Brown.
Robert Brown’s Life Gallery (Click to Enlarge):
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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.