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C. Christopher Brown, retired attorney who was a champion of the underdog, dies

C. Christopher Brown spent his legal career advocating for historically marginalized communities.
C. Christopher Brown spent his legal career advocating for historically marginalized communities. (Mary Hunt Davis)

C. Christopher Brown, a retired attorney and University of Maryland School of Law professor who was a champion of the underdog, died of complications of Parkinson’s disease Dec. 17 at his North Charles Street home. He was 80.

Born Charles Christopher Brown in Dover, Delaware, he was the son of Charles Brown, a surveyor, and his wife, Mary Salmons, a part-time teacher.

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“As a kid he was fascinated by stamps and baseball, with his favorite team the Philadelphia Athletics,” said his son Justin Brown. “In his own small town — and on the nearby Maryland Eastern Shore, he bore witness to the cruelty of segregation and was deeply disturbed by the prevalence of racial injustice and violence.”

He received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and while there, felt overwhelmed by the other students, who he thought were smarter and more sophisticated than he was.

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Brown was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. He taught civil procedure, evidence, constitutional law and legal writing.
Brown was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. He taught civil procedure, evidence, constitutional law and legal writing.

“My father was modest and unassuming,” his son said. “He used his sense of humor to put people at ease. Most of all, he treated people with dignity and respect, regardless of their standing in society. He was just as likely to become friends with the doorman in his building as he was with another high-powered lawyer.”

“He compensated by working harder than almost anybody else, and became an extraordinary student,” his son said. “At the same time, he started to develop a strong social conscience, and became interested in the civil rights movement.”

He then received a political science master’s degree from the University of Delaware.

He met his future wife, Leslie Jane Davis, at that school in a government studies class.

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He enrolled at Georgetown University Law School and lived with his wife in a Capitol Hill apartment.

His son said his father’s interest shifted and he became focused on poverty law and secured the rights of those who were left behind by society.

“He was a quiet and sometimes shy student. When grades were released at the end of his first year, the other students were shocked to see that he had finished first in the class. He was named editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Law Review,” his son said.

The elder Mr. Brown took a fellowship that allowed him to litigate on behalf of indigent tenants in D.C.

Brown, pictured in 1986, received the 2012 Elisabeth Gilman Award from the ACLU of Maryland.
Brown, pictured in 1986, received the 2012 Elisabeth Gilman Award from the ACLU of Maryland. (Walter McCardell/Baltimore Sun)

Florence Roisman, an attorney who worked with the Neighborhood Legal Service Project in Washington, described Mr. Brown as “smart, hardworking, determined and absolutely a bulldog. Once he got onto something, he did not let it go.”

He settled in Baltimore and became a Legal Aid attorney.

“He was instrumental in building the organization into a formidable fixture in the Baltimore legal and civil rights landscape,” his son said.

Mr. Brown joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law in 1975 and taught civil procedure, evidence, constitutional law and legal writing.

In the 1970s he sought unsuccessfully to win Social Security benefits for children termed “illegitimate.”

Brown, center right, takes part in a December 2001 ceremony at Brewer's Hill Cemetery in Annapolis to unveil a monument to lynching victims on the 95th anniversary of Henry Davis' lynching.
Brown, center right, takes part in a December 2001 ceremony at Brewer's Hill Cemetery in Annapolis to unveil a monument to lynching victims on the 95th anniversary of Henry Davis' lynching. (Amy Davis / XX)

He scored dozens of victories that advanced the rights of minorities in progressive causes such as voting rights, disability rights, housing, free speech, sexual orientation, and the right to die.

“Chris was one of the most important lawyers in Maryland in the last half-century and a terrific teacher and scholar,” said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor. “He was a national force as a legal aid lawyer. He was also a lawyer’s lawyer, with the uncanny ability to see the heart of a matter and construct the winning argument from that vision.”

Mr. Millemann said Mr. Brown “brought democracy to the Eastern Shore with his successful challenges to voting districts that unconstitutionally preserved apartheid for decades.”

Mr. Millemann also pointed to Mr. Brown’s work “remediating lead paint in homes and rental units, in representing the National Federation of the Blind, in representing wrongfully convicted and long-incarcerated prisoners, and in challenging discrimination in housing.”

In 1982 Mr. Brown started a law firm with office mate Daniel Goldstein.

In 1995 he sued a Salisbury Denny’s restaurant when three Black patrons waited two hours after ordering breakfast and left unfed.

“It seemed that with all that had happened nationally, this would not be happening again,” Mr. Brown said shortly after he filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

“He was bright and serious and could look at anything and figure out what was so important,” said Susan Leviton, a colleague from the Maryland School of Law. “He was aware that Blacks were the majority in many Eastern Shore communities, but the way the districts were drawn, African Americans lacked the power to get their own elected. He worked through the courts and the communities to make sure that Black people had a voice.”

He received the 2012 Elisabeth Gilman Award from the ACLU of Maryland for “his commitment and impact as general counsel of the ACLU and his lifetime of legal service to civil liberties and ACLU clients.”

He and his wife traveled extensively, including a visit to Bosnia in 1998. In 2001 he spent time in Cuba.

“There was no food he liked more than a fresh ear of Silver Queen corn,” his son said. “He was most at peace when he was working in his vegetable garden.”

“Given a choice of any seat from which to watch his beloved Orioles, he would choose section 34 of the old Memorial Stadium,” his son said.

Mr. Brown wrote a book, “The Road to Jim Crow,” published in 2016 by the Maryland Historical Society.The work detailed how Black Eastern Shore and Delaware residents in the post-slavery years faced lynching, segregation and disenfranchisement. He showed that Cambridge emerged as a political and cultural center of African American life.

In 2001 he spoke when a plaque was dedicated to lynching victims at an Annapolis cemetery. The tablet read, “May those who visit this site be reminded that mob rule must never become the law of the land.”

“The attitude and the aura of white supremacy was everywhere,” Mr. Brown said about Maryland in the early years of the last century.

Survivors include a daughter, Adrian Brown of West Hartford, Connecticut; a son, Justin Brown of Baltimore; a brother, Nicholas Brown of Lewes, Delaware; a sister, Sally Brown of Newcastle, Delaware; and four grandchildren. His wife of more than 50 years, a psychoanalyst, died in 2019.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

This story has been updated. A previous version listed the wrong publisher for the book “The Road to Jim Crow.” The work was published in 2016 by the Maryland Historical Society. The Sun regrets the error.

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