The Life of Brian Herron

Brian Herron has battled racism, hatred, and self-doubt. But none of that prepared him for the Minneapolis city council.

Of course, many politicians start out this way--claiming to despise the political game, only to become masters at it. What distinguishes Herron is that while he has learned to play, he has never begun to like it--and that now, a mere five years after beginning his political career, he is considering dropping out. "The political arena is a difficult arena, especially when you are the only person of color on a council of 13," he says. "It's difficult to be a part of that, difficult to watch things happen and be a part of them happening and know they're not in the best interest of the public.

"Very little of what we do in government is on behalf of the common person, the poor person. I am part of that hypocrisy, even in the middle of trying to inspire change."

The son of the pastor of Zion Baptist Church is no stranger to confrontation--in fact, he was raised in the middle of it. One of Minneapolis's most influential black churches, Zion has a long history of political and social activism. It played a key role in the election of mayor Hubert Humphrey in 1945, and in the subsequent passage of the city's civil rights ordinance, one of the first in the nation. Ever since then, its leaders have been prominent spokespeople on topics including discrimination, segregation, and police brutality.

Wing Young Huie

"From the infancy of the Black church, the role of the Black minister has been dualistic," Willa Grant Battle, herself a minister, wrote in her 1979 University of Minnesota master's thesis Black Churches in Minneapolis. "Sometimes the preacher spent more time fighting injustice and trying to improve the living condition of the Black community than he actually spent preaching the Word. Black ministers, for the most part, have felt the need to minister to the 'whole person,' recognizing that man is both spiritual and has basic human needs outside of the church circle."

In 1970, the pastorate of Zion Baptist had been vacant for nearly two years. After hearing guest sermons from a number of candidates, the congregation elected Curtis Herron of Kansas City, Kan. He packed up his wife Viola and four kids, Yolande, Brian, Dedra, and Dana, and moved to Minneapolis.

The family arrived during a volatile time in the history of both Zion and the city. The nation had enjoyed several decades of slow progress toward legal racial equality and integration. But most black families were still desperately poor and had few opportunities to get ahead. In 1967 those unfulfilled promises exploded into race riots in cities including Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In Minneapolis, police bought World War I-style helmets, painted them black, and conducted riot training. Violence eventually erupted along Plymouth Avenue; buildings along the commercial strip were burned, stores were looted, and a handful of people were shot. Gov. Harold LeVander sent in 600 National Guard troops to quell the disturbance.

Throughout this period Zion was seen as an "integrationist" church, its official history (published in 1992) notes. Curtis Herron, fresh from divinity school and sporting an afro, "represented the prevalent mood of the country, which had moved from the 'Negro' Civil Rights period to a new mood--the Black Revolution."

The Rev. Herron soon took positions on the boards of a number of community organizations, including the United Way and NAACP. He opened his church to activists in search of meeting space. The NAACP lawsuit that forced the desegregation of Minneapolis's public schools was organized during meetings at Zion. Brian Herron, then in his late teens, recalls a father who "wasn't afraid to challenge the system on injustices and wrongs. Part of me wants to be like him, and part of me says I could never be like him."

Neither man remembers exactly what year it was, but both point to an incident--possibly in 1972--at the Aquatennial's Torchlight Parade as an example of the events that helped shape Brian Herron. The festival was controversial at the time, with different racial and ethnic groups picketing it throughout the late '60s and early '70s. "The Aquatennial, for as big as it was and as much as was spent on it, it had a lot to do with white folks and not much to do with black folks," recalls Curtis Herron.

To this day, Brian Herron says he has no idea how he ended up getting arrested. A group of black children ran out into the street to walk behind the parade, he recalls, as he was starting back toward the bus stop to go home. He saw a sea of flashing lights. "The next thing you know, I was out in the street and the cops were swinging and I went down."

He was taken to the downtown jail along with several other teens from Zion, then released to his father. As the Herrons were riding home in their car, the reverend blew up. How could Brian get caught up in a fracas like that, he demanded to know. "But Dad, I didn't do anything wrong," Herron says he protested. "I know that," came the angry reply. It was a long time, Brian Herron says, before he understood what his father was talking about.

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