The Ku Klux Klan was just settling down to Business on a steamy Saturday afternoon this past June in the quiet town of Brooksville, Fla. At the base of the Hernando County Courthouse, a few yards from a monument of a Confederate soldier, bearing the message LOVE MAKES MEMORY ETERNAL, six men cloaked in white hoods and robes were trying to stir up hate. "Hello, Brooksville!" the grand dragon bellowed into his microphone. "I don't see no South Africa disrupting in the middle of the street here. I don't see no African dances. I don't see no watermelons gettin' busted. Looks like there might be a few white people here today."
Tension filled the courtyard at the corner of Broad and Main. Some 150 anti-Klan onlookers—black and white—jeered the speaker and his 50 or so applauding supporters in the crowd. Two dozen police officers braced for the first hint of violence. The scene in this limestone-mining community, 45 miles north of Tampa in the backwoods of west-central Florida, was getting ugly.
Suddenly, however, the racial slurs were drowned out by the sound of a thundering dance-funk beat. Heads turned. Pulling up to the scene was a jet-black Bronco pickup blaring 1,000 watts' worth of music from its 12-speaker stereo system.
Calmly, out stepped the driver, a brawny. 6'3", 290-pound young man dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt. Cheers began to pierce the pounding rhythm. Jerome Brown—No. I draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1987, controversial former star for the Miami Hurricanes and black resident of Brooksville—had come to play a little defense for his old hometown. The 23-year-old Brown walked toward the circle of six Klansmen. He said nothing. He simply smiled as he carried a sign that had GO AWAY KKK written across it in Magic Marker letters.
The Klansmen seemed stunned as Brown approached them. "One of them looked like an ant compared to Jerome; he was totally dismayed," says Brooksville policeman Terry Chapman. "You could see them all scratching their heads, standing around not knowing what to do next."
Brown moved through the crowd, urging many younger blacks to stay cool. His stereo did the rest, drowning out the Klan's attempts to resume it's harangue. Frustrated, the Klansmen drove off, sacked by a man whose small-town roots remain firmly planted even after his ascent into the big time.
"We've been getting along in this town for as long as I can remember, and we don't need those kind of problems," says Brown. "Just because I play football in Philly now doesn't mean I don't care about what happens back here. Brooksville is always going to be part of me."
Indeed, he may own a swank, three-story condo in Cherry Hill, N.J., a four-year, $1.9 million contract with the Eagles and the starting right tackle job in Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan's rugged 46 defense, but on almost any day that he's in Brooksville (pop. 7,500), he can hardly walk a block without some friend or relative honking at him from a passing car to say hi. He loves filling up on his mother, Annie's, barbecued ribs and sweet potato pie and helping his father, Willie, a mechanic for the town, tinker with car engines in the shade of the family's small frame house. Pretty soon Jerome and his folks will have new homes. He recently purchased 10 acres on the outskirts of town, where he's having a three-bedroom house built for himself next to a four-bedroom place for his parents.
But Brown's most important investment in Brooksville isn't in real estate. In early June he agreed to invest his time when police approached him to ask for a favor. "We knew the Klan was going to have a rally here, and we also knew that Jerome hadn't left for Philadelphia yet," recalls Chapman. "A lot of young people in the black community really look up to him. So we asked if he would help us keep things under control."
Brown didn't hesitate. A few days before the rally was scheduled he recruited a handful of former Hernando High football teammates, both black and white, to help him keep the peace. Then, unbeknownst to his buddies, who were preparing for a silent protest, Brown decided to launch a not-so-silent weapon: the stereo assault. "I just wanted to play something we could all dance to—and make it so loud nobody could hear what the KKK was calling us," says Brown. "If people could have heard what they were saying. I think there would have been some fighting."