What tragedy killed the first African-American to head a major U.S. political party?
Ronald Harmon “Ron” Brown (August 1, 1941 – April 3, 1996) was the United States Secretary of Commerce, serving during the first term of President Bill Clinton. He was the first African American to hold this position. He was killed, along with 34 others, in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia.
On April 3, 1996, when Brown was 54 and on an official trade mission, a U.S. Air Force CT-43 (a modified Boeing 737) carrying Brown and 34 other people, including New York Times Frankfurt Bureau chief Nathaniel C. Nash, crashed in Croatia. While attempting an instrument approach to Dubrovnik’s Čilipi airport, the airplane crashed into a mountainside. Everyone aboard was killed instantly except Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shelly Kelly, a flight attendant, who died while being transported to a hospital.
The final Air Force investigation attributed the crash to pilot error and a poorly designed landing approach.Speculations as to the circumstances surrounding the plane crash that caused Brown’s death include many government cover-up and conspiracy theories, largely based on Brown having been under investigation by independent counsel for corruption. Of specific concern was a trip Brown had made to Vietnam on behalf of the Clinton Administration. Brown carried an offer for normalizing relations between the United States and the former communist enemy.
Some, including Kweisi Mfume – head of the NAACP at the time – and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had written federal officials to ask for more data on the suspicious circumstances of Brown’s death. “Responding to homicide allegations, an official of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology acknowledged that doctors initially were puzzled by a circular wound on the top of Brown’s head when his remains were recovered at the crash scene. The forensic pathologist then consulted with others and took extensive X-rays. As a result of these consultations and full-body X-rays, we absolutely ruled out anything beyond a blunt-force injury to the head.”
Brown was buried with full state honors in his hometown.