The Meaning of Michael Brown, Jr.

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Names become synonymous with movements. A reminder, a rallying cry, an organizing moral force. Think Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk.

At Michael Brown Jr.'s funeral, Reverend Al Sharpton suggested that Michael should be remembered as the person who "made America deal with how we're going to police in the United States." When the teenager told his family that one day his name would be well known, certainly he imagined a different fate.

But, listening to the reverend, I wondered: What is in Michael Brown Jr.'s name that may indeed become synonymous with a movement against police brutality?  

Michael has consistently been the most popular boys name for the last hundred years in the US. It means "gift from God." It also means "humble and poor." For Christians, Archangel Michael led an army against rebelling angels. He's the patron saint of soldiers.

There are 1.6 million people in the US with the surname Brown. It's the fourth most common last name in the country as a whole, the fifth most common among African Americans. The name's English origins are obvious, referring to hair, complexion, even a garment color.


Enslaved Africans were not allowed to use their ancestral family names. Once free, some took their former owners' surnames, some the name of their trade, others, the name of their father, and still others the names of prestigious local families. Brown's family shares a common last name, belonging to both whites and blacks bound up together in a racist history.

That Mike Brown was a "junior" tells the world this: Heritage mattered to his family. This boy would become like his father.

If the name "Michael Brown Jr." becomes synonymous with a movement to change policing in this country, then I hope that movement reflects what the young man's name holds within itself: that it is humbly common, belonging equally to the whole community; that it acknowledges a shared racist history; and that it honors seniors and protects our young, juniors like Mike Brown himself.

With a Perspective, I'm Alex Giardino.

Alex Giardino is a writer, translator and community college instructor.