Lake Worth Beach 'Red Diaper Baby' learned peaceful dissent firsthand from Martin Luther King Jr.
Updated: Jan 15, 2022
JUST DOWN THE alley from her South J Street art studio, Joyce Brown’s former teacher towers 72 feet over downtown Lake Worth Beach.
“I think I was facing this direction right here,’’ Brown said the other day as she stood at the base of a sweeping three-story mural of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark “I Have A Dream” speech, which Brown attended.
Larger than life, King appears to pop out of the mural, bursting with colors in the signature style of Eduardo Kobra, the artist who painted it in 2017 on the back of the 54-foot-wide Robert M. Montgomery Jr. Building at Lake Avenue and South L Street.
All around King, stretching to the far ends of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, are the 250,000 people who attended the speech on Aug. 28, 1963, represented in the mural as anonymous faces painted black and white.
One of those anonymous faces belongs to Brown.
As a 19-year-old civil rights activist that day, she helped unload busloads of thousands arriving to attend the speech by the man who’d personally taught her six years earlier how to peacefully organize and protest.
Though Brown didn’t personally know King other than the week he and Ralph Abernathy met with her group of young activists in Philadelphia in 1957, she considers the mural like an old friend frozen in time, a short walk from her Flamingo Clay Studio.
And like those anonymous faces splashed far and wide across the mural, Brown is content to work behind the scenes in the fight for racial equality, without desire for any recognition of the differences she has helped make.
“I was just a small cog in the machine,’’ said Brown, and not because she’s barely 5 feet tall.
At 78, Brown’s “cog” is still turning. Given the recent events in American politics, she said she has no choice.
But the energetic Jewish grandmother with purple and green hair streaks — “the colors of the original suffragist movement,’’ she says — would rather focus on the hard work of other local behind-the-scenes cogs. They include Edith Bush of the West Palm Beach-based MLK Day steering committee, Retha Lowe and Paul Blockson of the Lake Worth Beach MLK coordinating committee, and author Ted Brownstein, founder of the Lake Worth Interfaith Network, who marched with King in 1966.
"We are modern-day abolitionists, modern-day suffragettes,'' she said. "We need a well-oiled machine of people willing to fight for civil liberties and civil rights.''
On Monday, Brown will join Brownstein and thousands of other local cogs in the 28th annual Candlelight March through downtown Lake Worth Beach, from City Hall to the MLK “ball” Memorial in the Cultural Plaza at M Street and Lake Avenue. (Anyone unvaccinated is asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing before and during the march, which starts at 5 p.m.)
In West Palm Beach, Bush will co-host the annual MLK Day breakfast at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and events at the South Florida Fair.
Like thousands of other local activists, Brown has volunteered for voter registration drives, attended anti-Trump protests around town and walked in Black Lives Matter marches.
Later this year, she’s planning to open her gallery again to the Rising Tide Initiative, which offers free art lessons to minority and LGBTQ teenagers in exchange for the teens doing community service such as voter registration.
She especially enjoys working with budding teenage activists, passing on the peaceful protest lessons she learned from the man himself when she was 13.
“I think young leaders need to come to the fore in these movements,’’ she said. “Old folks like me need to be replaced by our young people.’’
The movement has consumed Brown since the day she was born in Brooklyn in 1944.
“I was a ‘red diaper baby,’” she said, referring to the name given to kids born to parents who were members of the United States Communist Party.
The family moved to Philadelphia when Brown was an infant. Her early upbringing came at the dawn of the Cold War and in the shadow of McCarthyism, a time when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying and Hollywood stars blacklisted.
Her parents, who helped organize shipyard workers in the 1930s, became outspoken in their fight against racial injustice, anti-Semitism and the nuclear arms race.
They hung out with families of union organizers, teachers and people of all races, shaping young Brown’s social outlook at a time when racism continued to thrive across the country.
“We were a very vivid blend of people,’’ she recalled. “As a child, none of us perceived there were differences in people.’’
As a young child, Brown remembers hearing FBI agents banging on the door and watching neighbors get arrested and deported.
“The FBI followed us around in our neighborhoods and told us our parents were going to die like the Rosenbergs,’’ she recalled. “This was the plight of the ‘red diaper baby.’’’
In 1949, Brown tagged along with her father to an open-air concert in Peekskill, N.Y., by Paul Robeson, an African American singer sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
As concert-goers were leaving the performance, the car they were riding in was attacked by an angry mob in what became known as the Peekskill Riots.
Just 5 at the time, Brown remembers glass flying into her hair and one of her dad’s friends diving on top of her to shield her from the club-swinging mob.
In 1953, she sat on her father’s shoulders as he marched in protest of the Rosenberg executions. Three years later, she joined other teenagers in meetings at the YWCA in Germantown northwest of downtown Philadelphia under the guidance of social-justice activist Clarice Herbert.
“One day in 1957, two guys walked in — Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy,’’ Brown recalled.
“They were going around the country teaching people how to organize non-violently. The goal was a huge march planned in Washington for integrated schools.’’
Brown and two other teens were put in charge of organizing transportation for Philadelphians to attend the march.
It would become one of her main jobs in countless marches she'd attend over the years, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, better known for King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech.
“This is what I tell kids today, that none of us was any older than 14 and we were calling bus companies and we filled 10 buses that brought 500 people to Washington,’’ she said.
Brown had gotten married three days before the March on Washington in 1963. After she finished helping unload the buses from Philadelphia, she took a series of photographs with her Brownie Kodak camera, then settled in to watch King's speech.
Here are a few of the photographs she took that day:
Brown would spend much of her life traveling across the country, taking over her father’s business selling fabric to Amish communities, a business started by her grandfather after he arrived in the United States from Russia in 1908.
As proud as she is about her life’s work, she can’t talk about the recent political and social justice setbacks across America without breaking into tears.
“They were scary times and now they’re scary again. It breaks my heart. We fought so hard and we never got there. There is so much division in this country now. I’m terrified I won’t see it stopped in my lifetime,’’ she said one day in her studio.
“What scares me the most is people are so exhausted now from COVID and misinformation and lies that they're too tired to fight back.’’
The best way to fight back, she says, is at the ballot box.
“Until we end oppression against everyone who looks different than we do, everybody suffers,’’ she said.
The MLK mural provides comfort and offers hope for the future, she said, even if it is facing south, out of sight from the downtown strip.
She said an equally important work of art in Lake Worth Beach is the Unity Wall, built across town in the ‘50s for segregation before being converted decades later into a series of murals with themes of social justice and equality.
Both murals celebrate the prominent cogs in the fight for social justice.
“I was a small cog,’’ Brown says again, emphasizing her role in the movement. “I don’t stand out except that I had a compelling urge to make it happen.’’
HERE ARE DETAILS of MLK Day events in Lake Worth Beach and West Palm Beach. Although events in other communities have been canceled because of COVID-19, as of Jan. 12 there were not plans to change the Lake Worth Beach and West Palm beach events.
(Special thanks to Hannah Deadman-Arnst and Dana Munson of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County for their assistance with this story.)
© 2022 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.
IN CASE YOU MISSED my previous story: City attorney's power struggle with Pahokee mayor plays out in toxic political theater, DOJ request
MUSIC FROM OTHER KEYBOARDS
Wesley Morris in the New York Times: Sidney Poitier was the star we desperately needed him to be
Julie Zauzmer Weil, Adrian Blanco and Leo Dominguez in the Washington Post: More than 1,700 congressmen once enslaved Black people. This is how they shaped the nation.
Nathan Fenno in the Los Angeles Times: A swimmer’s fall from Olympic gold to the Capitol riot