I don’t know whether ex-Dallas police chief David Brown is a Democrat, a Republican, a socialist, or a tea party guy, or whether he’s even interested in politics. But in a rare speaking appearance at the Belo Mansion & Pavilion Wednesday night, the South Oak Cliff native showed he’s still one of the most charismatic, insightful, level-headed public thinkers around. The kind who—if he ever did want to run for office—could probably write his own ticket.
Now working as a contributor to ABC News, Brown, 56, was the keynote speaker at a fundraising dinner for Just Say Yes, a Dallas nonprofit that helps at-risk kids succeed in school. He told the crowd of about 350 there that he wanted to focus his talk on the days following the Dallas police shooting last July 7, when there was an “outpouring of love and compassion” for local law enforcement—including countless letters that came in containing money for the families of the officers who were killed.
One letter in particular caught Brown’s eye, he recalled. It was from a guy named Lance he’d befriended back during his days at The University of Texas at Austin. Lance had written the four-page letter to touch bases with Brown again, and to offer his sympathy in the wake of the cop killings.
That set the former chief to remembering how they’d met, when Brown—a poor, wide-eyed, African-American kid from the Oak Cliff “hood”—climbed aboard a bus bound for UT, made his way tentatively down the aisle, and sat next to the “white kid” named Lance.
Lance, Brown found out, was traveling to UT on the bus from his home in Missouri, where he’d also grown up poor. Soon the two were talking like old pals, and Brown—discovering as they approached Waco that Lance was very hungry—pulled out a sack of his great-grandmother’s fried chicken he had with him and offered some to his new friend. “We connected because we had similar upbringings,” Brown said.
In his July letter to Brown, Lance recalled the bus trip and wrote, “My views of blacks changed because of how you treated me.” (Reading that, Brown said, “I didn’t start crying, but my allergies started acting up.”) Then Lance confessed: “I always wondered why you sat down next to me.”
Lance’s question was interesting, Brown told the Belo crowd. So, he said, he would confide to them why he’d done it.
Six years before the Austin trip, when he was 11, the ex-chief recalled that he’d been among the first group of local kids bused to an out-of-area school, following a federal judge’s desegregation order. “No one wanted me there” at his new school, Brown said. “I didn’t want to be there. No one spoke to me for three months.”
Then, one day, from out of nowhere, “a little white kid invited me home to dinner—at 3 p.m.!” Brown said. (The first thing he thought, he joked, was, “White folks sure do eat early!”) Brown accepted the offer from the boy, who was named Mike, and walked with him from school to Mike’s home. There, the boy’s mother immediately summoned Mike into the kitchen and “started whispering,” Brown recalled.
“I felt like Sidney Poitier in the movie ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ ” Brown said, smiling. But then, after a long, uncomfortable time, Mike’s mother emerged from the kitchen carrying two pot pies. “Mike and I wound up talking until 7 p.m.,” Brown said. “And, eventually, our friendship led Mike to befriend other black kids.”
Recently, Brown said, he was able to reconnect with Mike and asked him, “What were you whispering with your mom about in the kitchen that afternoon?” Mike, who’s Jewish, said he’d reminded his mother about their relatives who’d survived the Nazi Holocaust, and how their counsel had always been to treat strangers kindly—especially those who were “different” from them.
In the end, all three friends—Brown, Lance, and Mike—wound up attending UT Austin at the same time. “So you wonder, is the moral of this story that all we need is fried chicken and pot pies to change the world?” Brown said to the Just Say Yes crowd. “No! But, you can transform lives with the way you interact with young people. The moral of this story is: we all have a responsibility to one another—one life at a time.
“People ask me, what’s the ‘secret’ reason you quit” the Dallas police department? Brown went on. “There wasn’t any secret reason. I was called to the job for a purpose, and I left for a purpose. I grew up poor, in a tough, high-crime neighborhood, and adults invested in me. That’s why I said yes to Just Say Yes. The Lord can call you to do things that you don’t want to do.
“The things you do for these kids’ lives means something. I’m proud to be in the same room as you all,” Brown concluded, preparing to leave the Belo stage. “Now my allergies are acting up again, so I’m going to stop.”
Needless to say, he got a standing ovation.