Longtime San Francisco civil rights activist and Black community leader Rev. Amos Brown, who also served on the Board of Supervisors from 1996 to 2001, sat down for a recent interview with the Chronicle — and he minced no words about the city's history when it comes to the treatment of Black people.
Brown is the pastor of the Fillmore District's Third Baptist Church, and has watched the transformation of that neighborhood since much of it was razed under the auspices of redevelopment in the mid-1960s. It wouldn't be until the 1980s that many of the buildings were replaced, and by then much of the Black community that made the place the Harlem of the West had left.
Prior to becoming pastor at the church in 1976, Brown worked as a youth activist in Mississippi, and met Medgar Evers at the age of 14. At 15, in 1956, Brown founded the first NAACP Youth Council in Jackson, MS, and later was arrested alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during an Atlanta lunch counter sit-in.
Brown says he doesn't believe in bitterness, and he believes in moving forward. But there's no doubt that there is intergenerational bitterness about the atrocity and displacement that "urban renewal" wrought in the Fillmore.
When asked in the interview if he "believe[s] that the Bay Area is a safe haven for Black people and other people of color," Brown is quick to answer "no." But much of his continued outrage is directed at San Francisco.
"The Bay Area and specifically San Francisco has been living a lie," Brown says. "The city does not deserve the brand and image that it has of being liberal and progressive. The only thing San Francisco is liberal and progressive on is sex. That’s it. And there should be no restrictions on persons on how they express their sexuality, but there’s a problem for Black people to get quality education in San Francisco. [And] Since 1970, we have lost Black people who were pushed out of this city."
As KQED explained in a piece last year about the disappearance of the Fillmore Jazz District, 10% of San Francisco's population identified as Black in the 1970s (it was the same in 1960 according to the U.S. Census). The Black population is now half that, as confirmed by 2019 Census data, which found 5.2% of the city was Black.
The writer James Baldwin famously referred to "urban renewal" as "Negro removal," and that was very much what happened with the redevelopment of the Fillmore. Baldwin was the center of a KQED-produced documentary in 1963 in which he visited San Francisco.
And in those days before the Summer of Love and SF's newfound reputation as a magnet for flower children and anti-war activism, Baldwin echoed some of what Rev. Amos Brown is still saying.
"I imagine it’d be easy for any white person walking through San Francisco to imagine everything was at peace," Baldwin said. "Because it certainly looks that way on the surface. You’ve got the San Francisco legend too which is that it's a cosmopolitan and forward looking [city]. But it’s another American city."
Brown's interview with the Chronicle is part of a series that's being published across the Hearst family of publications, timed to coincide with Juneteenth. "Lift Every Voice connects young Black journalists with Black elders in their communities to celebrate and learn from their life experiences — deepening connections with the past to position us all for a better future."
Photo: Library of Congress