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Mourners remember 'pastor's pastor' and WWII veteran Matthew Southall Brown Sr.

Pastor Matthew Southall Brown Sr., a retired Baptist preacher and decorated war veteran, is being celebrated and remembered this weekend in Savannah, Ga. Brown died late last month of natural causes. He was 99.

Brown was a member of the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, Company E, a segregated support unit. He was among the first African Americans to desegregate the military and fight during World War II. He earned the Good Conduct Medal, WWII Victory Medal, as well as an American Theater Ribbon, among other commendations.

"He was in ... a designated regiment of Black African-American soldiers who were called up to help with the Battle of the Bulge, so there was great history there," his son, Matthew Southall Brown Jr., told local TV station WTOC.

"Their ranks were taken away from them because they could not outrank white soldiers, so all of that had a particular pinnacle in his desire to make sure that wrongs were corrected and that justice prevailed," he said.

After the war, Brown Sr. attended Georgia State College, and earned a bachelor's degree in Divinity from the American Baptist College in Nashville.

Brown was also involved in civil rights work in his hometown, Savannah. Several decades before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, he participated in annual Emancipation Day parades as a boy.

For local faith leaders, Brown was the "pastor's pastor." He retired as pastor emeritus of St. John Baptist Church after 35 years in 2004, and hosted "Thought For The Day," a local morning radio program. The National Baptist Convention recognized Brown in 2013 for his more than 50 years of service.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., had a close relationship with Brown.

"As a child of Savannah, I join many others in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Savannah's Dean of pastors, the Rev. Matthew Southall Brown. He was for me a mentor, a father and a shining example of a pastor whose ministry went far beyond the walls of his church," tweeted Sen. Warnock, who is also senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church once led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In an interview with WSAV, Warnock reflected on Brown's accomplishments as a minister, activist and war veteran.

"Given his generation he remembered a time when it was really tough, especially for black people," the senator said. "He had seen Jim Crow segregation but he was never bitter as a result of it. He was a patriot, served in the armed services but he also served in the non-violent army of the lord."

In August 2019, Brown and family members attended the kick-off of "a year-long, nationwide celebration of gratitude and remembrance in the city of Ternuzen, Belgium," for WWII veterans, according to Leonard Brown, the pastor's son.

According to Leonard Brown, seven veterans were invited from Poland, France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States. Pastor Brown was the only African American veteran there, and he met and spoke with heads of state, high-ranking officials from The Hague, ambassadors, and "inquisitive children."

Last year, Savannah city officials declared July 16 — Brown's 98th birthday — as an official day in his honor. Residents drove by his home with well-wishes while he sat in a rocking chair receiving the passersby from his front porch.

"I've had a good ride. I've had a wonderful 98 years. Ninety-nine and a half wouldn't do, I'm waiting on 100," he told WTOC, with a smile.

Savannah Mayor Van R. Johnson made a statement shortly after Brown's death.

"For many of us," the mayor wrote on Facebook, "he was a spiritual father, mentor, confidante, encourager, and trailblazer. His branches are too many to count, and the loss to our community is enormous."

Brown Sr. is survived by his four children, Maxine Jones, Leonard Brown, Christa Stephens and Matthew Southall Brown Jr.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.