It’s a very long way from Yazoo City, Mississippi to the Halls of Congress, State Houses, City Halls and the White House, but Bishop H.H. Brookins has been there, “an don dat.” He has traveled that path and has gone the distance. Along the way, he has touched the lives of other bishops, ministers, mayors, governors, and presidents yet, he has always remained a pastor to his people. He has walked with princes and paupers; dined with kings, rulers and peasants; he has counseled those in power and those without power; he has preached to the masses and the classes; but has always remained close to the people.
Hamel Hartford Brookins was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the son of Samuel and Lena Brookins, and like most Black people in the South at the time, they were sharecroppers. During this period in the South, and particularly in Mississippi, segregation and Jim Crow were the law – de facto and de jure. It was a time when Negroes couldn’t even walk in White folks’ shadow, and that was the social environment that nursed Brookins’ formative years before he traveled to the North to seek an education.
H. H. Brookins
To clearly understand and appreciate the life and the works of H.H. (as he was affectionately called) Brookins, it is important to note that he was a multi-faceted and multi-talented individual. He was a religious leader, a preacher in the church; and a civil leader outside the church. He dealt with civic matters outside of the church, and has traveled the historical path of icons of the civil rights struggles, who have pastored their flocks and served their constituents simultaneously and consistently–icons like Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Minister Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Thomas Kilgore Jr., and Bishop Nat Turner. Like those men, and many other heroes/sheroes of the struggles, H.H. Brookins has traveled parallel paths -religious and civic–aiming at the same goals. He would be in the pulpit in the morning and in the streets in the afternoon, both times serving the needs of the people.
In his dual mission, he blended the charisma of a fire-and-brimstone, street corner preacher with the charm and refinement of a skilled, platform orator. And through many “named” people, he rose to international prominence (on two continents: in Africa and USA) as a champion of Black political and economic empowerment, African liberation movements, business enterprise development, and the growth of the church–all in furtherance of his mission to help Black people.
Though a legend in Los Angeles, he arrived here via Wilberforce University, Payne Theological Seminary and the University of Kansas. It was as pastor of St. Paul AME in Kansas that Brookins began his social activism “outside” of the church. One of his school mates at Payne, former Bishop Vinton Henderson, once said, “H.H. was convinced that the church could not just do business between its four walls on Sunday morning, and therefore he was always involved in ministry to the wider community. He would often say, ‘You can’t lead from behind’.”
It was in the wake of the 1954 Brown decision that he was thrust into the civil rights arena. There were hostile reactions to the court’s decision and Brookins organized a 200-member interracial ministerial alliance committed to the peaceful implementation of the Brown decision. From there he was appointed to the First AME Church (FAME) of Los Angeles which was located in the downtown area.
Getting familiar with Los Angeles took Brookins in the midst of the Watts Rebellion of 1965 in the role of peacemaker. As membership in the church grew, so was his influence. One of his members was Thomas Bradley (future mayor of Los Angeles); they struck up a relationship that went beyond pastor and congregant, and Brookins became Bradley’s political mentor and guide.
During that time he also became acquainted with a man named Jimmy Roosevelt who had run unsuccessfully for mayor of Los Angeles against Sam Yorty, then the mayor. Roosevelt had tapped Brookins’ for assistance in his short termed political career and the quid pro quo was that Brookins told him that he needed some help to build a million-dollar church and a youth center. Roosevelt then moved to New York.
Before becoming bishop, he served 13 years as pastor of First AME Church of Los Angeles and led the congregation through the construction of a multimillion-dollar cathedral. When the church was finally built, Brookins led the congregation in a parade from the old church to the new location where FAME still stands in all of its majesty. The grand marshal of the parade was the famous actor, Tony Curtis, and also included John Factor and all the big-named folks in L.A.
While he was occupied with building, Brookins was never far away from the political scene. L. A. city council now had two city Black councilmen: Tom Bradley and Gilbert Lindsay, and Brookins was positioning Bradley to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Bradley’s first run was unsuccessful. He told Bradley, “You’ve just been delayed, not defeated.” Meanwhile Brookins sphere of political influence was becoming bigger and wider as his counsel and advice were being sought by Black and non-Black candidates running for various elected offices. His status as a “kingmaker” was confirmed.
In 1972, he engaged in a little politicking for himself at the AME General Conference. He ran for bishop and became the 91st AME bishop. He was now the Rt. Reverend Bishop H. Hartford Brookins. His first assignment was the 17th District that encompassed five African countries where he was a key person in the Liberation movements of Zambia, Rhodesia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zaire. He built the people hundreds of homes and helped mediate many of the regions social issues and problems.
One of the African countries, Rhodesia, is the present day Zimbabwe. He landed in the midst of the country’s struggle for independence. And because of his past activities, it was natural for him to get involved. He identified with the Black Freedom Fighters, and donated money and material assistance to the struggle. He was very outspoken and he did so, forcefully and relentlessly against the racist government. After one such speech, before a crowd of about 15,000 in Salisbury, he was escorted by armed guards to his hotel where he was ordered to stay until he could be escorted out of the country. According to the Bishop, “I didn’t sleep at all that night; I kept on all my clothes. At 6 o’clock the next morning, I was ready.” They escorted him to the border where he crossed into Zambia, to a friendly president, Kenneth Kaunda.
While in Africa, Brookins kept in touch with politics in L.A. He was the co-chair of Bradley’s run for mayor and with his guidance, Tom Bradley became the first Black Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, a great moment in U.S. history.
Bill Elkins, Bradley’s longtime, loyal assistant once wrote, “Bishop Brookins was the most forceful leader to elect Mayor Tom Bradley to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963 and Mayor in 1973.
After Bradley became mayor, his council seat went to another Black councilman, David Cunningham Jr. At that time, there was a lot of political movement emanating from the Brookins’ school of politics–names like Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, Nate Holden, Bob Farrell, Jerry Brown–and the list goes on.
In 1977, he founded Brookins Community AME Church in Los Angeles and appointed Rev. T. Larry Kirkland who remained there until he became bishop. Then Bishop Brookins appointed Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray to the FAME Church in Los Angeles; the one he had built. In Rev. Murray, Brookins said that he had made the perfect choice, for even though Rev. Murray eventually installed those magnificent stained glass windows, it was Brookins who gave him the building to work with. After Brookins retired, Murray gave this glowing tribute about him, “Bishop H.H. Brookins was a pioneer in the civil rights movement and continues to present wonderful enlightenment for equality.”
He made quality and lasting appointments, such as Rev. C. Garnett Henning to St. Paul AME church. Henning became a bishop and is now retired. He placed Rev. Frank Reid at Ward AME and then to Bethel AME in Baltimore, Maryland. He helped Rev. Vashti McKenzie to become the first woman bishop in AME history. He established “Brookins” AME churches in Oakland, California; Seabrook, Maryland in addition to L.A.
He developed economic programs including the California South L.A. Development Corporation, the Economic Development Fund of the 5th District, and the People’s Trust Fund, just to name a few, and he raised well over $100,000 to help shrink the deficit of AME Shorter College.
While in the 12th District, he got acquainted with Bill Clinton, who was about to become governor of Arkansas, and a future president. Brookins would eventually go on to organize the African American Clergy for Bill Clinton’s elections and to have the inaugural prayer service for President Clinton held in Washington’s Metropolitan AME Church.
When Rev. Jesse Jackson was making his first historic run for the President of the United States, Brookins was there to mentor and guide him throughout the campaign. He became the chairman of Operation P.U.S.H. and mobilized ministers around the nation for Jackson’s 1984 run for president.