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What Might Have Been

June 2024
2min read

I was a young staffer with the United Planning Organization during the spring of 1965. UPO was the local District of Columbia agency of President Johnson’s poverty program. Its field office where I worked was in a depressed section of black Washington. But employee morale was high with the spirit of black and white together in those “we shall overcome” years.

There were so many ideas to debate, programs to start, and people to involve. But surprise problems often demanded attention. One morning we learned that a disturbance nearby between neighbors had escalated into a raucous confrontation between police and community. As the employee in closest contact with the police, I asked several of UPO’s neighborhood workers for suggestions on what should be done. Hubert Brown’s was the most thoughtful: Visit the police captain in Precinct 13 to talk with him about patrolmen being more sensitive to neighborhood tensions. Brown was just twenty-one years old, but he came across as streetwise, soft-spoken, and likable as well as being a frank advocate for poor people in the community.

The captain we went to see, Milton C. Reed, was an older man with a Southern drawl. I didn’t know him well and was concerned lest he be like some others in a police department practically run by Rep. John McMiIlan, the South Carolina chairman of the House District Committee. Indeed, from the way Captain Reed received us, he might have been a courteous cousin of Bull Connor.

But once Reed gave up on trying to get me to do the talking instead of Brown, he and Brown started to communicate well. They both talked and they both listened. Brown described the frustrations of black ghetto life as artfully as a Richard Wright novel, while Reed spoke of the difficulty of training officers from very different cultural backgrounds to act with sensitivity in the community. I was soon a fly on the wall, fascinated to see an older white man with lots of police power and a young black man with hardly any organizational authority obviously influencing each other.

After almost an hour Brown and I left, he and Reed agreeing to keep in touch. Although he had declined, I could see that Hubert Brown had been pleased when the captain said the police department needed young men like him and wouldn’t he please take the police entrance exam.

By my last day in Independence, I was obsessed with getting the old man sitting on his porch to talk to me.

This story would be unremarkable except for its postscript. A couple of years later Hubert Brown became nationally known as H. Rap Brown. When he succeeded Stokely Carmichael as chairman of SNCC, the radical Carmichael said: “You’ll be happy to have me back when you hear from him. He’s a baaaaad man.” In July 1967 Brown proclaimed that “violence is as American as apple pie.” He disappeared after telling a crowd in Cambridge, Maryland, that the town should be burned down—which it partially was that night. Brown was arrested for inciting to riot and arson but was acquitted four years later. But he was soon jailed for carrying a rifle onto an airliner and for participating in a New York holdup and shootout.

The twenty-eight months between Captain Reed and Cambridge had been seismic for many of us. The ideal of black and white togetherness was battered, and it has not been restored fully to this day. I have often thought that if Captain Reed and Hubert Brown could communicate so well together, why couldn’t black America and white America have talked and listened to each other better than they did, and thereby achieve so much more justice with so much less strife?

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