Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prominent N.J. attorney, civil-rights leader Ray Brown dies at age 94

By David Giambusso

from the Newark Star-Ledger via

Ray Brown's client list reads like a Who’s Who of historical New Jersey figures: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Mario “Dr. X” Jascalevich, bookmaker Joseph ”News boy’’ Moriarty and cop-killer Joanne Chesimard.

During a 59-year law career that began with a defense of civil rights workers and progressed to include some of New Jersey’s highest profile cases, Brown became known for his unflagging work ethic and dominating courtroom presence. He also inspired a generation of African-American attorneys.

“He was not just a great lawyer, but a great man and a great leader,” said his son and law partner Ray Brown Jr.
Brown, of Montclair, died Friday from pulmonary disease. He was 94.

According to his family and the lawyers that worked with him, Brown’s high-profile cases were only one aspect of a pioneering legal career that was consistently fueled by a desire to defend the defenseless.

“He represented so many ordinary people,” his son said, “People who were drug addicts, people who were down on their luck, people who had done dumb things.”

Born in 1915, Brown moved from Florida with his parents and grew up in Jersey City. After fighting in World War II, he became one of the first black officers in President Truman’s desegregated army. When he retired from the National Guard in the 1970s he had reached the full rank of colonel.

After returning from the war, Brown used the G.I. Bill to attend Fordham Law School while working a dock job during the day. Unable to find a sponsor after law school, Brown was given a clerkship by Jersey City lawyer Ray Chasen, and was one of few African Americans to be admitted to the state bar in 1950.

From that time on, Brown never shrank from a fight, his family and friends said.

“If you don’t fear anyone you can accomplish anything,” Brown Jr. recalls his father telling him and said his father adopted a tenacious approach to civil rights that would bring him around the country defending black clients, oftentimes at his own expense.

“His commitment to civil rights and the rights of minorities is something that drove him throughout his entire life,” said Tom Ashley, a prominent Newark attorney to whom Brown was a mentor.

When Junius Williams, 65, was protesting voting disparities in Montgomery, Ala. in the 1960’s and was arrested by police and dragged before a judge, Brown was his first phone call.

Williams, now the director of Abbot Leadership Institute at Rutgers Newark, made Brown his first phone call.

“He said ‘I’m coming,’ and he told his secretary to book the flight,” Williams said.

Brown was instrumental in quelling the Newark riots, family and colleagues said. As a Judge Advocate General in the National Guard, Brown’s relationship with then Gov. Richard J. Hughes, allowed him to act as a liaison between the Guard and city residents. When poet Amiri Baraka was arrested, Brown defended him successfully.

Brown Jr. attributed his father’s success not just to his tenacity and intellect, but to his understanding of people.

“If he sat down with you for 10 minutes he would understand your family, your background, he would have a read on you,” Brown Jr. said today. “It transcended ordinary logic.”

Brown continued working up until March of this year. A diabetic, Brown developed a pulmonary condition and succumbed at Friday morning to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He is survived by his second wife, Jennie Brown, son Ray Jr., daughter Deborah Brown Bowles, two step-children — Clifton Howell and Denise Randal — and seven grandchildren. His first wife Elaine died in 1968.

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