Brownie Ledbetter

In 1953, Ledbetter married the woman who would be his partner in life, politics, service, and education for almost 60 years.  Mary Brown Williams was born on April 28, 1932, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nicknamed “Brownie” by her family, she graduated from Little Rock High School and attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, from 1950 to 1953. She left college without completing her degree because she felt she did not fit the school’s image of southern womanhood.

Brownie Williams Ledbetter, ca. 1960s

Brownie Williams Ledbetter, ca. 1960s

After marrying Ledbetter in 1953 and relocating to Germany where he was stationed with the U.S. Army, Brownie watched from afar the growing crisis surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. Her aunt signed her up for membership with the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), and, immediately upon her return to Arkansas, she began volunteering with the group. After the dissolution of the WEC in 1963, Brownie worked with the Panel of American Women. She moderated the first 25 sessions of the panel, a nonpartisan forum focused on religious and racial diversity in which women discussed their own personal experiences in an effort to bring together people of different races and cultures. The panel eventually expanded its mission, becoming the Arkansas Public Policy Panel to organize and assist grassroots groups in 1981. She served as volunteer executive director, training 60 citizen lobbyists before retiring in 1999.

In 1983, Brownie founded the Arkansas Fairness Council, a coalition of grassroots organizations, and served as president and lobbyist for fifteen years. Other organizations on her resume include the Arkansas Women’s Political Caucus (founding member), the ERA/Arkansas Coalition (organizing member, 1973–1978), Arkansas Career Resources, Inc. (founder and executive director from 1985 to 1990), the Southern Coalition for Education Equity (state director from 1982 to 1985), the Arkansas State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the State Federation of Business and Professional Women (legislative director), and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (co-founder with Democratic New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug).

In addition to her grassroots activities, Brownie worked with more than 15 political campaigns, serving as organizer and consultant in many of them, including her husband’s successful bid for the Arkansas General Assembly in 1967. She served on the State Democratic Central Committee from 1968 to 1974, as the first Political Action Chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1973, and as the Affirmative Action Committee Coordinator for the State Democratic Party in 1973–1974.

Throughout her years of service, Brownie received many awards and recognitions, including the American Civil Liberties Union Civil Libertarian of the Year in 1992, and the Mary Hatwood Futrell Award from the National Education Association in 2005. She died at her home in Little Rock on March 21, 2010. She is remembered as a lifelong activist who was dedicated to equality and who served as a catalyst for numerous grassroots organizations.

This invited article was provided by the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.  The Butler Center holds the papers of Brownie Ledbetter (MSS.99.36).  The finding aid is available online.