Marcia Wilson Brown Brings Doo-Wop, Black Power, and Social Justice to Newark

By R.L. Witter

Marcia Wilson Brown is vice chancellor for External Relations and Governmental Affairs, a position in which she forges and maintains relationships on behalf of Rutgers University– Newark with public officials, governmental agencies, and civic groups. “I don’t find myself that interesting,” she chuckled at the onset of our interview. Her quiet demeanor and daily devotionals belie the heart of a rebel and an activist beating in her breast. Before her days in Newark she had a whole, other life—one that informs her commitment to community and education to this day.

The story of Marcia Wilson Brown began in Inkster, Michigan. Both Brown and the town share the same claim to fame: it was the home of the popular Motown group The Marvelettes. “They used to practice in my house,” she said unaffectedly. “Gladys (Horton of The Marvelettes) and my brother went to school together and my brother was in a doo-wop group. Everyone was into doo-wop.” Another famous face around Inkster was Malcolm X. Malcolm lived there with his brother and worked at a Ford plant in Wayne. He even mentioned the town in a speech just days before his assassination.

After leaving Inkster to obtain her college degree, Brown and her husband moved to Wyoming and Chicago before heading east. When asked how she met her husband her reply began, “When I was a bodyguard for Angela Davis…” Yes, THAT Angela Davis. Brown was active in “The Movement,” particularly with the Black Panthers, where she gained a reputation as a radical. There was also a stint at a Wyoming radio station where Brown discussed the cattle report with her co-star, “Rodeo Round-Up Dan.” Yet she doesn’t think of herself as interesting, huh?

Brown and her family settled in Newark in1975, where she raised her only child, a lovely daughter. As a member of An Organization for American Revolution, she traveled the country extensively working with diverse groups of people. She’s been at Rutgers-Newark for over twenty years. “I’ve met so many people across different spectrums and one of the hallmarks of my life is whether it’s been the political arena, elected politics, community activism, organizing on the ground, the corporate arena, or my work at HUD, I have been given a well-rounded, cross-sector background,” she reflected.

After earning her juris doctorate, Brown clerked for New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, and has continued to advocate for social justice, equal rights, and civil rights. For years, she taught a seminar on social justice and health disparities, which gives her a certain insight and perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic. “The actual institutions can acknowledge that disparities exist, but they don’t know how to heal it because they are so invested in the systemic authoritarianism. And the people who might know better can’t change things for themselves because they see themselves as victims,” she said. “This pandemic has exhausted the continuation of the old paradigms. No one can function the way they did before and this is why we’re seeing so much tension and disintegration. We haven’t let go of the old way of doing things so we can embrace the new.” She continued, “Now that 70 percent of the people come into emergency rooms with no jobs, they have no insurance. So we have to think about how we change the construct to deal with it. Either we’re going to service people the way they are, in the space where they’re living, or we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing… It’s a strategy that requires a lot of thought.”

Another area Brown says needs adjustment is education. “We don’t educate our students. We give them knowledge, tell them to memorize it, and then regurgitate it back,” she explained. “I always say we’ve gone from the age of so-called reason—the pre-eminence of science and technology and enlightenment, to the age of ignorance. At a time when we have more technology than ever before, all of the practical problems like safe and affordable housing, poverty, and climate change, there’s a plethora of ways in which the world can become a better place, but you can’t change people’s minds and you certainly can’t change their hearts.” Never one to give up, Brown writes and shares daily devotionals in an effort to keep the faith.

Having worked in and around the Sharpe James and Cory Booker administrations, Brown is now working with the current, Baraka administration. “There has never been a better time for Newark to fulfill its potential than now, and I believe that’s primarily because of the Ras Baraka administration,” she remarked. “He is a visionary. I think Ras coming at this time when the struggle for democracy has become even more tense due to the pandemic and the realization we are rapidly becoming a country of the rich and the poor—you need someone to come in and say, ‘This is what we have been doing and experiencing, but now we’re on a new trajectory; we’re going to look forward.’” Brown quoted Mayor Baraka’s saying, “forward ever, backward never!” and added, “He wants to get people grounded in what could be.”

Brown is impressed by Mayor Ras Baraka and his ideas for Newark’s future. “He’s not just a personality. He is coming up with ideas and programs that ensure people take ownership of the vision and are invested in its success. From day one, his vision has been ‘we/us’ and said ‘I am not the one who is going to make this happen alone. All of us have a part in making it happen.’”