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Byrd Brown feted by peers: Father's group honors son's leadership and work

Tuesday, January 18, 2000

By Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Byrd Brown has taken on many roles in the 50 years he's practiced law: civil rights leader, mayoral candidate, power broker and teacher.

But he's never been active in the association that bears his father's name. That didn't stop the Homer S. Brown Law Association from honoring Byrd Brown yesterday with its first annual Drum Major for Justice Award.

"Byrd has fought (for civil rights) courageously and often single-handedly," the association's president, Carl G. Cooper, said at a prayer breakfast at East Liberty's Mt. Ararat Baptist Church. "He is a hero in this corner of the world."

Named for Homer Brown, who became Allegheny County's first black judge in 1948, the Homer S. Brown Law Association is an advocacy group for black lawyers with about 45 members. Byrd Brown isn't one of them. He's never been to a meeting, partly because he's been busy with other endeavors, and partly because, he says, the group honored his father's legacy, and he wasn't sure where he fit in it.

Yesterday's ceremony focused not on Brown's relationship with the association, but on his contributions to civil rights. A contemporary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brown helped organize rallies at Forbes Field where King spoke. In 1963, he led a train convoy to the March on Washington. Brown and his fellow marchers heard 15 speeches and were about to leave when King began his "I Have a Dream" speech.

"All of us just somehow turned around, and crowded back to the podium. And by the time he was finished I was crying like a baby," Brown told the crowd of nearly 500.

Brown, now 70, said remembering that day highlights how far Pittsburgh and the rest of the nation must go to reach equality. He pointed out that of roughly 7,000 attorneys practicing in Allegheny County, fewer than 200 are black.

Many who came to honor Brown remember how he organized 5,000 people to march through Downtown seeking better jobs for blacks at Duquesne Light in 1967. He also picketed several construction sites in a push to put more blacks in construction jobs.

He wasn't afraid to go to jail for his cause, or to bail out others.

City Councilman Sala Udin recalled the time police stopped him and fellow civil rights workers while they were driving back to Pittsburgh from Mississippi in the 1960s. Officers arrested Udin and the others after they searched their car and found a pistol. While stuck in jail, Udin called Brown.

"Byrd came to Kentucky and got us out of jail," Udin said.

Although known for his political activism -- he ran for Pittsburgh mayor in 1989 and for Congress in 1970 -- Brown was honored yesterday for his private contributions.

"He was the first black attorney I'd ever seen," said attorney Joseph K. Williams III, whose decision to become an attorney some 20 years ago was inspired by Brown. "He was the leader, and he always led from the front."

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