My dear friend Louis Arnold was number one, the most aggressive heavyweight karateka and kickboxer in the State of Texas during the 1970’s. I was at the time a member of the Austin Police Department, as well as that department’s self defense instructor. Recently, Louis told me about the time in the early 1970s when he was stopped by two of my fellow officers. They did a complete search of his person and of his vehicle, as well as a records check. He was clean. They then insulted him in the following manner: “Do you expect us to believe that you, a 24 year old Black man, have never been in trouble?”
I tell that story to give the reader an idea of the difficulty even law abiding Black citizens faced in that day. This was but seven years after Doctor Martin Luther King’s march in Alabama, and two years after his assassination. In no way do I give any accreditation to the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I have difficulty with the moronic mindset of people whose idea of protest is to burn down their own neighborhood. Louis Arnold, one of the greatest fighters in the nation in his day, could have easily taken out both of those cops. Instead, he conducted himself like a gentleman, in the face of stupidity and ignorance. He, and not those agitators flocking to Ferguson, would have made Doctor King proud.
But it is Joe Brown*, Black American, and retired member of this country’s military forces, that I want to speak of. I made his acquaintance at the intersection of Oltorf and South Congress in 1970. I was stopped at the light on Oltorf, behind two other vehicles, when I was hit from behind by another vehicle, slamming my police cruiser into the vehicle ahead of me, which then slammed into the vehicle to its front. I jumped out of my vehicle, and raced to the car behind me. The driver was Black, and in his mid 40’s. I thought that strange, for there were at the time few Blacks living in South Austin, (where I was working temporarily, as I normally worked East). Most Blacks didn’t venture out of East Austin in those days. There was truly a racial divide in those days.
I was angry, and reached into the car to yank him out, but was stopped by a curt but firm and sober, “don’t treat me that way! You’ve got no cause to put your hands on me.” This came in the tone of a man of used to giving orders, apparently a man of respect, twice my age, talking to a young pup. I was surprised, but he was right. I was out of line. There was no evidence he’d been drinking, and as it turned out, he was tired and had fallen asleep. He identified himself as Joe Brown, and a records check came back clean. He produced insurance papers, and a collision report was made.
The more I learned about Joe Brown, the greater was my admiration for the man. He had a little food stand up on Webberville Road, close to Ernie’s Chicken Shack. Ernie’s Chicken Shack was a landmark East, a place people liked to go after hours on weekends. You would see them come in, a caravan of cars, filled with White folks. They would come in large groups, for protection, and walk into Ernie’s to mingle with the Black folks, deep in “dangerous” East Austin! The coffee was good there after hours, for the coffee had a mix of whiskey in it, if anyone cared to know. After spending an hour or two in the place, the White patrons would load into their cars, and drive away, to recount to their friends the next day as to how they’d spent a couple of hours the night before mingling with savages! Ah, the thrill of it all! The day after their jaunt into danger, should any of those White folks happen to bump into the Black folks they had mingled with the night before, they would turn up their noses, as if they had never seen them.
At any rate, they were as safe at Ernie’s as anywhere else in Austin, for the folks there were not going to let anything happen to them. Ask any policeman who had run into Ernie’s to get away from the brick and bottles! I recall four of us loading into one unit to go after an out of district officer who had run into Ernie’s. We had driven through the hail of rocks and bottles reserved for policemen, in answer to a phone call from the proprietor at Ernie’s. The proprietor’s had laughingly handed over the very frightened officer, with a “he’s ok, we weren’t going to let anyone hurt him!
It was there, in that area, that Joe Brown got the attention of the Austin Police Department’s East Austin units. As I have said, pretty regularly there, we took in rain storms of rocks, bottles, and bricks. It was something that happened, part of the job. Sometimes one of us went to the hospital, (to include myself) and sometimes it was one of them. On a rare occasion, when things were quiet elsewhere, a more intrepid Captain of police would allow us to gather a dozen or so officers and go after them, but most of the time, we were on our own.
Now the man Joe Brown was a law abiding citizen, and he laid down the law, in pretty explicit language and harsh action, which coming from anyone but a Black man would have been labeled racist. He wasn’t putting up with such hooliganism. He was good on his word. One night, when a mob began raining down bricks on APD units, Joe Brown intervened. He shot and killed one of the hoods, this in defense of a cop. Nor was that the only instance of his intervention in behalf of law and order. It happened again, a year later, with another hood going down to Joe Brown’s pistol. This too, was a clear case of self defense, and with a couple of Austin police officers testifying in his behalf, (unheard of in those days, cops testifying in behalf of a Black man) Joe Brown was no billed by the grand jury.
Then came the night that a White man, the owner of a night club up on Burnet Road, came to Ernie’s Chicken Shack. He was having money troubles, and Joe Brown, a frequent visitor to Ernie’s after hours, was reputed to have money. He befriended Joe, and in time was able to come away with the money he needed, quite a large amount, with a promise to repay.
The months passed, and nothing was heard from the man Joe Brown had lent the money to. Joe Brown called him at his night club, numerous time. The man refused to talk to him. Joe told him he would go to the night club. “N——-, don’t come here. There are none of your kind allowed in this part of town! If you come here, I’ll kill you, and no law will arrest me for killing a n——-.”
Joe Brown was nobody’s fool. He knew that ordinarily the law would frown severely on a Black man going into North Austin after a White man. But the circumstances and his relationship with the law up to this point were anything but ordinary. They owed him, and he was about to test the system in a big way. They owed him, and the night club owner owed him, and he meant to collect on both accounts.
When he walked into that man’s night club, there was an immediate uproar. “ What is that n—— doing in here?” Joe didn’t let that bother him. He had come on business, that being to recover the money owed him, or to hear a good reason why not.
The owner approached him, and things got ugly quickly. “N——, I told you not to come here!” Joe remained cool, unruffled by the man’s verbal threats. “I’ve come for my money,” he tendered quietly.
At this point, the threat level increased substantially, for the night club owner pulled out a .38 pistol and leveled it at Joe Brown. “I told you not to come here!” But Joe Brown, never a man to be trifled with, was not fazed. Quick as you please, he pulled a .45 caliber automatic, and shot the night club owner dead. Then, remaining unruffled despite the commotion and screaming his last action had caused, he leaned up against the bar and waited for the law to arrive.
Twice that month, Joe Brown had petitioned to collect on debts owed. The night club owner denied the first petition, and threatened his life to boot, for which act he paid with his own. The Travis County Grand Jury heard once more the case of self defense regarding the Black man, Joe Brown, only this time, the killing involved a White man. As the investigators wrote it up, there were lots of witnesses, and the night club owner was a man with a tarnished reputation. It may have been with reluctance, but Joe Brown was no billed. The system owed him, and he had collected.
*Not his actual name.