PULASKI, Tenn. (TN Tribune) — The ‘turning point’ for James Monroe Brown was when a constable denied him use of a whites-only water fountain in the Giles County Courthouse rotunda.
Black history details like that were told on the courthouse lawn where Brown’s civil rights leadership, political success, business acumen and heritage are summarized on a history marker that was unveiled April 29.
Brown (1928-2000) was the first Black elected official in Giles County, serving on the county commission which meets in that courthouse. Brown’s memorial is within 450 feet of where the Ku Klux Klan was organized 156 years ago.
“We’re not going to allow the hand that history has dealt us to define us,” Pulaski Mayor Pat Ford told nearly 120 people gathered to honor Brown. “We’re going to create venues and opportunities to have … hard conversations and to create change.”
It’s been a long time coming says John Birdsong who’s seen change, and knows “things are better.” 1964 Civil Rights Act enforcement and the Tennessee Title VI Compliance Commission were part of Birdsong’s career. “There are still civil rights issues to be addressed,” he said noting “police brutality.”
Brown was the grandson of a slave on a Confederate general’s staff.
At the unveiling, Brown’s younger sister, Lena Will Brown-Prince, recognized and thanked historic marker committee members Ford, Birdsong, John Finch Nelson, Joseph F. Fowlkes, and Pat Miles. Committee research for the marker, Miles said, found the water fountain story; “And the man had just fought for our country” in Korea and World War II, she said.
Birdsong said Brown was in “a cadre of friends who got things done.” His friends included Nashville giants Francis Guess and Avon Williams. Brown and Williams helped form the Tennessee Voters Council, the state’s oldest and largest Black political organization.
Brown was a White House guest of President Carter.
“He knew the people to get things done,” Brown-Prince said; “what the laws were; he spoke with Thurgood Marshall,” the Supreme Court justice who, two decades before his confirmation, defended men in nearby Lawrence- and Maury County courthouses against charges rooted in another World War II veteran’s reaction to racism.
Alderman Hardin Franklin said “In 1978, James made application to [USDA’s] Rural Development to build 40 housing units for senior citizens. He was denied; told, ‘There’s no need.’” Franklin encouraged Brown to try again. As the Tennessee Voters Council president — the minority vote in the state — Brown called U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser about it.
The units are occupied today.
“Pulaski,” Birdsong said, “is moving forward for … a more positive image for the city.”
That image includes the University of Tennessee Southern campus here, acquired from Martin Methodist College in 2021 when Dr. Mark La Branche became UT Southern’s chancellor, having been MMC’s 31st president. La Branche noted Brown’s grandfather worked in plantation fields owned by two Tennessee governors before the Civil War.
Their busts face the rotunda’s water fountain.
“In 1963, when George Wallace was standing in the door to the University of Alabama, barring the entrance…” La Branche said, “quietly, in Pulaski, Tenn., this force of nature [Brown’s sister Lena Will] entered our college,” on Brown’s insistence.
Her matriculation “went smooth,” Brown-Prince said. “Nothing happened It all worked.”
Pulaski’s vice mayor, Miles, “used to go down and visit with (Brown) as an alderperson and we’d talk” about what Pulaski needed, she said. His funeral home office wall photos show him with Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young. “He’s the kind of person we should be recognizing.” When denied drinking fountain water, “He just said, ‘OK,’” Miles reported. “That’s what prompted him to become involved in politics to change things. He did it in a legal fashion. It wasn’t with the divisiveness that we see today.”
It was Brown’s character. Birdsong said, “When James was 12, he was challenging people on issues. He didn’t change.”
He changed things and “was involved in all civil rights movements,” Brown-Prince said.