Ronald H. Brown was the the first black commerce secretary and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Brown was born in Washington, D.C., and raised by middle-class parents in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. His father managed the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, where Ron grew up. As a child, Brown appeared in an advertisement for Pepsi-Cola, one of the first to be targeted toward African-Americans.

After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, he joined the U.S. Army in 1962 and served in South Korea and Europe. After being discharged in 1967, Brown joined the National Urban League, an advocacy group for the renewal of inner cities. At the same time, he enrolled in law school at St. John’s University, obtaining his degree in 1970.

He went on to serve as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee under Chairman Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar. Brown left Capitol Hill in 1981 to become a lawyer and lobbyist for the then-law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow.

In 1989, he was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, becoming the first African-American to hold the top party position. As chairman, Brown played a pivotal role in securing Clinton’s election victory in 1992, paving the way for the first Democratic administration in 12 years.

On the fateful day of April 3, 1996—Brown, along with 34 other passengers, died when his plane crashed into a Croatian mountainside while conducting an official trade mission on behalf of President Clinton.

Ronald H. Brown was a success in his own right and on his own terms. After his death, President Clinton established the Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership and responsibility. This annual award is a U.S. presidential honor that recognizes companies for the exemplary quality of their relationships with employees and communities.

“Politics, life, and business are not spectator sports. You have to get involved to get ahead. Most importantly, when you reach that level of success, keep the door open and the ladder down for others to follow.” – Ronald H. Brown


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