Elaine Brown grew up in North Philadelphia to a single mother and an absentee father. Despite poverty and growing up in a single parent home, Elaine was afforded the opportunity to participate in extracirricular activities such as classical piano and ballet, and to attend private school. She was noted to have had many white friends because of this. After high school, Brown attended Temple University for less than a semester before withdrawing to pursue a music career in Los Angeles. While there, she enrolled in University of California, Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Brown became involved with Jay Richard Kennedy, a music executive who educated her on Capitalism, Communism, and the Civil Rights Movement. Due to this education, Brown became involved with the Black Liberation Movement. After their breakup, Brown began working for the radical newspaper Harambee. She attended her first Black Panther meeting after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination.
As a member of the Black Panther Party, Brown helped set up the first Free Breakfast for Children program in Los Angeles as well as its first Free Busing to Prisons Program and Free Legal Aid Program. Soon after, she became the editor of the Black Panther publication for the South California Branch. In 1971, Brown became a member of the Party’s Central Committee as Minister of Information, replacing Eldridge Cleaver who had been expelled. In 1973, Brown was commissioned to record some songs by Founder and Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton that resulted in the album Until We’re Free.
When Newton fled to Cuba in 1974, he appointed Elaine Brown to lead the Black Panthers in his absence. She led the Party from 1974 until 1977. During her leadership, Brown managed the victorious campaign of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first black mayor and she developed the Panther’s Liberation School. She stepped down from the Black Panthers after Huey Newton’s return and after he authorized the beating of a female Panther. No longer able to tolerate the sexism and patriarchy of the Black Panther Party, Brown moved to Los Angeles to raise her daughter.
Elaine Brown's later activism included radical prison reform and providing educational resources for impoverished African American children. In 2007, she announced her bid to be the 2008 Green Party presidential nominee. She resigned due to the domination of white people who, in her opinion, were not really trying to effect change or help her do so. Presently, Brown lectures frequently at colleges and universities as well as at numerous conferences.