A Quiet Hero

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Heroes / Repairing the System

Dr. W. Melvin Brown is a Navy veteran who now practices medicine in his hometown, Charleston, South Carolina.  He is also an African-American, a fact that caused him to be a subject of controversy last month when some white friends urged him to apply for membership in the prestigious Charleston Rifle Club.

Brown was literally “black-balled.”  In the election meeting  members place either a white or a black marble in a box assigned to the proposed candidate;  six black balls  is a “no.”  When it turned out that Brown’s box contained 11 black marbles, he was tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave the meeting just as the successful 13 applicants, all white, moved forward for the induction ceremony.

To this point in the story, Brown is a victim, but not a hero. What I think makes him  a hero is his response to this racial insult.  Brown admits that his  immediate reaction was “huge disappointment”  and “not a little embarrassment.”   And I think we would all agree that he had every right to anger; a  public  denunciation of the club — and maybe a lawsuit– would seem an understandable response.

Instead, Brown has chosen to  stand  back to see how things  work out.  He is quietly supporting  his friends in the club who are trying to rectify the situation. “I would like to see the club fix itself.”  While commanding  whites in the Navy,  many from the South, Brown found that his efforts to show them  respect were usually reciprocated.

Demonstrations and litigation are, of course,  necessary to bring about structural change, but I think  Brown shows us that courtesy and patience also have a role to play,  especially in contexts  like a social club where personal relations are so central to the group’s success.

Brown also made a comment that keeps popping up in my mind: “The best way to fight racism is to meet people.”  Maybe that’s challenge we all should  think hard on in the new year.

So let’s hope that the members  of the Charleston Rifle Club listen to their better angels and ask Dr. Brown to join them.  But let’s also ask ourselves if we would not be better citizens– and happier people– if we followed Dr. Brown’s advice  to “meet” more people from backgrounds different than our own.

Happy New Year!







  1. Beautiful commentary, Jake. The “victim”-“hero” distinction; the role of demonstrations and litigation vs the hero’s approach in the social club context; the connection to our own response in similar situations. A thoughtful suggestion about how we all might confront racism in the new year . . . mix our aggressive tendencies with the somewhat novel concept of just “meeting with people.” Thanks for the New Year’s challenge.


  2. Wendy LaRiviere says

    I wish I could make the leap others have made to see some redeeming value in this story. South Carolina is not a place I know except by reputation, so it is possible that I am relying on a stereotype of intractable old boy racism, but when the article quotes the club’s president to the effect that there is no problem, no controversy, and that the club is the same wonderful place it has been for 150 years, I feel nothing but disgust and contempt. I hope the white members who advanced the doctor’s application don’t make nice with the old guard.


    • You make a good point about the club president’s disingenuous reply, but there are other facts which suggest an old club struggling to come to terms with the 21st Century. The club has over 200 hundred members; there were only eleven “no” votes and only abut 60 members voting.. Let’s see what happens when the full membership discovers that their club is up for “racists of the year” honors . Even if the decision stands, I think Dr. Brown comes out a “winner.” The fact is there are not any effective legal remedies for racial discrimination at a private club other than cutting off its liquor license, not a very attractive remedy for a man who wants to be an accepted member. I think we all know at some point the Charleston Rifle Club is gong to accept African American members. The first may or not be Dr. Brown, but he will have played an important role in the final victory either way.


  3. Wendy LaRiviere says

    I understand your long view, John. It’s one I think we all grew up on. I just can’t help but think that Strom Thurmond is dancing in his grave. (He might have been a member!) And Lindsey Graham? (He might be a member.) I think we can guess at his response from his performance at Kavanaugh’s hearing. In any case, I won’t be losing any sleep over this black-balling episode. There are more important issues facing the black community and our entire society than membership in a gun club in South Carolina.


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