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East Flatbush artist to recount life in 1960s Selma

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The cinema isn’t the only place to learn about Selma this Black History Month.

An East Flatbush artist and author who grew up in the Alabama city during the height of the civil rights movement will read from her memoirs at Tabla Rasa Gallery in Sunset Park on Feb. 15.

Willie Mae Brown said she has been working on her autobiography “My Selma” on and off for years, but with the movie “Selma” in theaters and a new generation of protesters taking to the streets and claiming a mantel of civil rights, she believes it was time to finally tell her story.

“I’m focusing more on Selma at this moment because of all the stories that haven’t been told,” she said. “I’m getting older, and it is time to reveal some of the things I saw and heard.”

Brown said she grew up in a violent place where being black meant watching your back, but thanks to her family’s relative privilege and her father’s secure job with the railroad, she did not experience much hatred for most of her childhood. And the first time a white person called her the N-word, she was more concerned about protecting her father, keeping him unaware of the indignity to stop him retaliating and coming to harm.

“I didn’t think he would do something, I knew he would do something,” she said. “He dealt with a lot of white men that were bad men.”

But Brown is quick to point out that not all white people in her life were enemies of progress. She spoke fondly of several white, Jewish store owners who treated her family like anyone else, and one who even slipped her father $20 to support Brown’s siblings when they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.

Speaking in a southern drawl untempered by her decades living in Brooklyn, Brown described the impact of seeing Martin Luther King Jr. on one of his visits to Selma. She said she had wanted to hang out with friends that day, but when her mother dragged her to church, she quickly forgot her pals when King walked in the door.

“He mesmerized me,” she said. “My mom kept telling me to sit down, and I hadn’t even realized that I was still standing.”

Standing at 5-foot-7, Brown said King was shorter than she had expected, having imagined a tall man based on hearing the preacher’s booming voice on the radio or television. But despite his small stature, his presence in the room far outshone any recording she had seen or heard, she said.

“When he spoke he was so huge, even though he was small,” Brown said. “He opened his mouth and I heard that voice, and that night changed me.”

Willie Mae Brown reads from “My Selma” at Tabla Rasa Gallery [224 48th St. between Second and Third avenues in Sunset Park, (718) 833–9100, tablarasagallery.com]. Feb. 15 at 2 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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