Today, we honor the anniversary of the passing of former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. Secretary Brown was a dedicated public servant whose untimely death during a trade mission to Croatia on April 3, 1996 ended his life far too soon. His vision continues to be important and today’s work at the Department of Commerce builds on his legacy.
Secretary Brown served his country in Korea as a soldier in the U.S. Army and in the halls of Congress as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also broke down barriers – becoming the first African American chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Commerce. In this latter role, he made perhaps his largest impact.
During his tenure at Commerce, Secretary Brown pioneered a focus on exports that helped to boost the U.S. economy in the 1990s and contributed to one of the largest periods of economic expansion in our nation’s history. During a time when emerging markets in Asia and Latin America were opening up to trade, Secretary Brown led a concerted effort to support this advancement and to secure access for U.S. goods and services. He was a proponent of free trade, seeing business as a powerful force to create good jobs at home and to accelerate prosperity around the world. He also was an advocate of fair trade, seeking to ensure that U.S. workers would be helped and not harmed by new trading arrangements that would increase flows of capital and commerce.
This focus has endured long after his passing. His legacy is embedded in the sustained commitment of successive administrations from both parties to assist American companies in expanding their global reach, both small businesses and large corporations. President Obama has embraced this approach, laying out a clear path to double exports and to lock in high labor and environmental standards in countries around the world, potentially generating billions of dollars in trade, creating millions of jobs, and ensuring the healthy growth of communities around the planet.
The accident that killed Secretary Brown also took the lives of 34 other individuals, including 11 Commerce employees serving with Secretary Brown on the trade mission, who dedicated their lives to serving this country. This group included Commerce staff members Duane Christian, Adam Darling, Gail Dobert, Carol Hamilton, Kathryn Hoffman, Steve Kaminski, Kathy Kellogg, Charles Meissner, William Morton, Lawrence Payne, and Naomi Warbasse.
As President Obama has said, “Ron Brown embodied the values and the ideals, that sense of possibility, that is at the heart of the American story.” As we look ahead toward a more prosperous future for America and people around the world, let us take a moment to honor his achievements and the memory of all those whose sacrifice enables our work today.
Rebecca Blank is US Commerce Deputy Secretary and Jonathan Greenblatt is Special Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.