Brown was born in Mineola, Texas and attended a segregated high school. He moved to San Francisco in 1951, attending San Francisco State University and graduating in 1955 with a degree in liberal studies. Brown earned a J.D. from University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1958. He spent several years in private practice before gaining election in his second attempt to the California Assembly in 1964. Brown became the Democrats' whip in 1969 and speaker in 1980. He was known for his ability to manage people and maintain party discipline. According to The New York Times, Brown became one of the country's most powerful state legislators.
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