I only met Brownie Ledbetter a few times. When I heard the news of her passing yesterday, I was a little stunned. The death of a 77-year-old woman shouldn’t be shocking, but it feels like there is hole in Little Rock now.
We were introduced a couple of years ago when I was interviewing for the Emerging Leaders program at the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. She was the board member who did my interview. We talked for over an hour. I was immediately taken with her. She was everything I want to be: brash, sassy, confident, funny, kind. I quickly started interviewing her. I wanted to know everything about how she managed her roles as a wife, mother, advocate, all of it.
During our conversation, I mentioned I was in the Junior League of Little Rock. I actually kind of mumbled it. I assumed a liberal lion like her would snort at such an association. She looked me dead in the eye and told me to hold my head high when I told people I was in the Junior League. “Don’t you know what the Junior League does in this community? You are part of the most active group of women volunteers in this city. Be proud of that.” Turns out she had been a member of the League back in the day. She left under disputed circumstances. She told me she lost her respect for some of the women at the time, but never for organization or what it had and could accomplish.
She told me the story of joining the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools after the Central High Crisis of 1957. She, along with many other Junior Leaguers, fought to get Little Rock schools re-opened. She went on to lifetime of tireless activism. She never met an underdog she didn’t want to champion their cause. I asked her how she came to be so involved in these causes at a time when so many good people were quiet.
“When my father died, he left me some money,” she said. “Who was gonna threaten me? I didn’t have job they could take away or a business they could close. I didn’t need them. So shame on me if I didn’t stand up. Shame on me if I didn’t spend my life working for people whose circumstances didn’t allow them to. Shame on me if didn’t use my position to make this place better.”
Her chosen causes met with quite a bit of opposition and sometimes open hostility. She often lobbied the legislature for her various interests. There was a particular state Senator who delighted in giving her a hard time. He would make any number of sexist remarks to see if he could get her angry. He did everything he could to demean and belittle her and by association, her purpose. She knew she couldn’t let him get the best of her, so she started repeating to herself on her way into the capital, “John Smith* is a child of God. John Smith is child of God. John Smith is child of God.” She said she did it to remind herself of the humanity in all of us, and “you can’t kill a child of God.”
I am humbled and inspired by her legacy. Shame on all of us if we don’t follow her example and do everything we can to make this place better.
*name changed to protect the guilty