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You could hear the organ swelling and the congregation clapping a block away from Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a small redoubt of piety in the northside neighborhood of Independence Heights, where the windows of the frame houses are covered by burglar bars or two-by-fours. Outside, it was a beautiful late fall morning -- so clean and crisp and temperate as to be prima facie evidence of God's inexhaustible good grace. Inside Salem Missionary, the Reverend J.C. Nickerson was vigorously calling down more of the Lord's blessings on the guest of honor.
"Remember brother Lee Brown this morning!" Nickerson entreated. "You brought him for a time like this...."
The object of Nickerson's request stood to his right, gently swaying to the building strains of the organ while the pastor addressed the 50 or so congregants who were on their feet near the front of the sanctuary, clapping and shouting the occasional amen! Nickerson recalled that back when he was chief of police, in 1986, Brown spoke at a banquet the church held --came himself, didn't send an emissary -- and then the reverend remembered how things were in neighborhoods such as Independence Heights before Kathy Whitmire brought Brown to town.
"Folk were running from the policeman,'' -- and by "folk" Nickerson meant black folk -- "but after this man took over, relationships were mended."
The story's somewhat more complicated than that, but Nickerson's message was essentially true. Whatever else has been said or written about the record Brown amassed while job-hopping about the country -- and Brown surely never knew what a sorry public servant he had been until Rob Mosbacher began telling people so --the Houston Police Department did indeed undergo a fundamental change for the better under Brown and Whitmire. That was no small accomplishment to the people in mostly black neighborhoods such as Independence Heights. Not only did the HPD lose its unsavory national reputation as a butt-kicking brigade of throwdown-gun-planting rednecks, but today the department looks more like the people it serves, and in Independence Heights, people have come to expect the same level of protection provided the richer and whiter neighborhoods across town.
In patting ourselves on the back about what a "diverse, cosmopolitan and international" city Houston has become, it's easy to forget what it was not so long ago: just a big town in East Texas, which is to say a big town in the Deep South, which is to say a town that was strictly segregated, and one in which that particular social arrangement was often reinforced by the officers of the law -- even within the lifetime of 46-year-old Rob Mosbacher. Ask almost any African-American or Hispanic native of Mosbacher's age, and they're likely to have a story about how they feared the cops when they were younger.
That's a big reason why the mere presence of Lee Brown -- evanescent though it may be -- was enough to bring the congregation of Salem Missionary Baptist Church to its feet, on a Sunday morning when Brown was as close to being the mayor of Houston as any African-American has ever been.
At Salem Missionary, Lee Brown looked to be at ease -- or as at ease as he can be in public. He took the pulpit and spoke extemporaneously, although he said nothing especially interesting, and nothing that he hadn't probably said on dozens, if not hundreds, of previous occasions.
But in marked contrast to his many appearances at luncheons, before civic clubs and in televised debates, at Salem Missionary Brown sounded natural, unforced -- as if there's an authentic self somewhere below the thick clouds of preprogrammed blather he's emitted for six months, a self that may, on special occasions or in hospitable surroundings, even reveal itself to the strangers he wants to serve.
Brown came to the Reverend Nickerson's church as more than just another candidate seeking office: He stood before the congregation as a symbol, a very powerful symbol, which is why they cheered as loudly when he told them he was the first African-American in the country to obtain a doctorate in criminology as when he promised to drive the drug dealers from their neighborhood.
And it's on the field of symbolism that Brown seems most comfortable. Even his schedule on the Sunday morning before his runoff with Mosbacher was packaged for effect. He started at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, and after his stop at Salem Missionary he went to St. John the Divine Episcopal Church on the lip of River Oaks, a neighborhood with its own private police force. Mosbacher Country, most definitely. But Brown, as you may have heard, wants to be the mayor for all of Houston.
St. John was not a typical stop for a candidate -- the pastor couldn't immediately recall any supplicants for public office dropping by before an election, at least not on such an overtly political pilgrimage as Brown's -- and the mayoral hopeful did not get to stand before the almost all-white congregation and recollect how he grew up bathing in a No. 3 washtub. He simply sat and listened to the Reverend Larry Hall's 11 a.m. sermon.