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Ronald Harmon "Ron" Brown (August 1, 1941 – April 3, 1996) was the United States Secretary of Commerce, serving during the first term of President Bill Clinton. He was the first African American to hold this position. He was killed, along with 34 others, in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia.
Early life and political career
He was born in Washington, D.C., and was raised in Harlem, New York, in a middle-class family. He was a member of the African-American social and philanthropic organization, Jack and Jill of America, where he met many African-American friends. Brown attended Hunter College Elementary School and Rhodes Preparatory School. His father managed the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, where Ron lived growing up. His best friend John R. Nailor moved into the penthouse while a student at Rhodes. Nailor was one of the other few black students who attended Rhodes Prep. As a child, he appeared in an advertisement for Pepsi-Cola, one of the first to be targeted specifically towards the African-American community.
While at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, Ron Brown became the first African-American member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, a national men's collegiate fraternity. Brown joined the army in 1962, after graduating from Middlebury, and served in South Korea and Europe, the same year he married Alma Arrington. After being discharged in 1967, Brown joined the National Urban League, a leading economic equality group in the United States. Meanwhile, Brown enrolled in law school at St. John's University and obtained a degree in 1970.
Rising star in the Democratic Party
By 1976, Brown had been promoted to Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Governmental Affairs of the National Urban League. However, he resigned in 1979 to work as a deputy campaign manager for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who sought the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Brown was hired in 1981 by the Washington, D.C., law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow as a lawyer and a lobbyist.
In May 1988, Brown was named by Jesse L. Jackson to head Jackson's convention team at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Brown was named along with several other experienced party insiders to Jackson's convention operation. By June, it was apparent that Brown was also running Jackson's campaign.
Brown was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee on February 10, 1989, and played an integral role in running a successful 1992 Democratic National Convention and in Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential run. President Clinton then appointed Brown to the position of Secretary of Commerce in 1993.
On April 3, 1996, when Brown was 54 and on an official trade mission, the Air Force CT-43 (a modified Boeing 737) carrying Brown and 34 other people, including New York Times Frankfurt Bureau chief Nathaniel C. Nash, crashed in Croatia. While attempting an instrument approach to Čilipi airport, the airplane crashed into a mountainside. Everyone aboard was killed instantly except Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shelley Kelly, a flight attendant, who died while being transported to a hospital. The final Air Force investigation attributed the crash to pilot error and a poorly designed landing approach. Speculations as to the circumstances surrounding the plane crash that caused Brown's death include many government cover-up and conspiracy theories, largely based on Brown having been under investigation by independent counsel for corruption. Of specific concern was a trip Brown had made to Viet Nam on behalf of the Clinton Administration. Brown carried an offer for normalizing relations between the U.S. and the former communist enemy. When details of the meetings and subsequent offer were leaked to the press President Clinton denied it. Brown was scheduled to testify before a House committee but died in a plane crash prior to when he was to appear.
Honors and Legacy
On January 8, 2001, Brown was presented, posthumously, with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton. The award was accepted by Brown's widow, Alma Brown. President Clinton also established the Ron Brown Award for corporate leadership and responsibility. The Conference Board administers the privately funded award. The U.S. Department of Commerce also gives out the annual Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award in his honor. The California Black Chamber of Commerce, every August, holds the Ron Brown Business Economic Summit.
Many academic scholarships and programs have been established to honor Brown. St. John's University School of Law established the The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development in memorial. The Ronald H. Brown fellowship is awarded annually to many students at Middlebury College to pursue research internships in science and technology, and the Ron Brown Scholar Program was established in Brown's honor in 1996 to provide academic scholarships, service opportunities and leadership experiences for young African Americans of outstanding promise.
The largest ship in the NOAA fleet, the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown, was named in honor of his public service not long after his death.
In March, 2011 the new United States Mission to the United Nations building in New York City was named in Brown's honor and dedicated at a ceremony in which President Obama, former President Clinton and the United States representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Susan Rice, spoke.
His son Michael Brown was elected to the Council of the District of Columbia in 2008.