The legendary and incomparable Judge Joe Brown can be summed up in one simple statement: He is intellectually intelligent, compassionate, engaging and resolute. Serving the people, encouraging them to rise, and moving humanity forward has been his life’s work. Originally from Washington DC, Joseph Blakeney Brown was the only child of hard-working teachers. Judge Brown’s success can be tied to his upbringing from parents who expected nothing short of excellence from him.

A father of two sons, Judge Brown, 76, has had a distinguished legal career as Memphis’ first African American prosecutor after working with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Additionally, he served as director of the Memphis Public Defender’s office. Having opened his own law practice, Judge Brown was elected judge of Shelby County’s State Criminal Court in 1990. In addition, he was the last criminal court judge to preside over James Earl Ray’s last appeal of his conviction for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Producers of the popular televised court show Judge Judy took notice of this. 

In September of 1998, Judge Brown was offered the opportunity to preside over his own arbitration-based reality court show Judge Joe Brown. Judge Brown became a household name, and his show held a strong chokehold on pop culture. The show premiered on September 14, 1998, and ran for a total of 15 seasons. Judge Brown was the second highest-paid daytime television personality behind Judge Judy while his show was on the air. During the entirety of its series run, Judge Brown was also the longest-serving African-American television arbitrator.

Judge Brown is running for mayor of Memphis and believes he has the qualifications to succeed. He maintains that his strategic ideas and solutions can significantly improve the quality of life for Memphis residents. Despite controversy, and even though some may not like him, Judge Brown insists, ‘You must support the football player, so that he can score the touchdown.’

50BOLD was fortunate to chat with the Honorable Judge Joe Brown about the plight of our youth, the criminal justice system in our country, and parts of his life and career that are seldom revealed. Additionally, he discusses the actions he would take as mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, and the power he believes he has to transform the city.

Judge Joe Brown as we remember him best!

50BOLD:  You grew up in South Central, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. You could have easily gone down the wrong path and got caught up in a life of crime, but you didn’t. Instead, you were an exceptional student and valedictorian of your high school graduation. How did you manage to avoid those mean streets and why become an attorney?

Brown:  Well, my father and mother decided that they would stay, let’s say in the hood, because they wanted to make a difference. They could have gotten out earlier, but they didn’t. So we stayed there. I had my father as my role model. He had gotten out of the army as a sergeant, took the GI Bill, went to Howard University, and got his undergraduate degree and law degree. So, he wound up becoming a schoolteacher because in the early 50s there weren’t that many prospects for Black lawyers, so that’s how I got here. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I never wanted to be a judge. It was one of those things where it just happened.

50BOLD: What career did you want to pursue?

Brown:  I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, scientist, or physician.

50BOLD: What led you to move to Tennessee and how long have you lived there? 

Brown:  I wound up declaring, what was a minor as the major, and that was political science. I also had military science and hard sciences as minors, the way it worked out in the end. So, I didn’t know what to do. My faculty adviser advised that if I didn’t want to go immediately to Nam, then I needed to declare a major, and maybe teach political science. I said, ‘No way!’ So, it was suggested that I consider law school. I took the LSAT and didn’t even realize what I had done until I began receiving letters from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA–all wanting to recruit me.

I discovered some years later in a posting at UCLA Law School, when they were trying to determine what could predict somebody’s success in law school, that I had the highest LSAT score of any student or professor in the school’s history. I wound up getting a law degree from UCLA and did an internship at a DC Think Tank. There, I ran into some people from Howard University, who were running what they called the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program created in 1967 to attract young lawyers to the field of poverty law. I accepted a job and thought I was going to be in Los Angeles, CA.

Unfortunately, there were some political things that went on with the Richard Nixon administration, so being Black and not Hispanic, I had to accept a posting for six months, outside of Los Angeles. So, I was sent to Tennessee. I did have some family connections there, so I went and wound up staying. It surprised me at first, but I stayed, and that was 50 years ago.

50BOLD:  What was it like growing up in the Brown household?  

Brown:  We were expected to achieve excellence. My father came out of World War II at 35 years old as a sergeant, and he expected me to uphold. If I got five A’s and one B, I didn’t get congratulated. I got jumped on for not getting straight A’s. And if there was a fight, I dare not run away from it, unless I was outnumbered. And my old man taught me to box at an early age, so I could hold my own. Back then, people were into karate. But if you could box, you could box.

50BOLD: I understand that your family has a rich history and legacy. Can you share with our readers the history of your grandparents and great grandparents? What were some of the stories passed down? 

Brown: My maternal grandfather was born before the Civil War—1850. His father was a Nigerian, a Yoruba, who was kidnapped after the slave trade was officially over [in many northern and western states]. So, when they brought him over here in 1817, they had to set him free. He had to pay his owner, the person who brought him back, the purchase price. Be that as it may, my half-Nigerian grandfather was born in 1850. He became a physician but he wasn’t a nerd.

Memphis Youth Art Initiative decided to have dinner with JJB at his headquarters. This group are the marching majorettes.

50BOLD: Why do you say he wasn’t a nerd?

Brown: One of my uncles got lynched, so my grandfather, and an uncle sought out and murdered, the two deputy sheriffs who they thought were responsible. Naturally, they then had to leave the state. They didn’t want to get lynched either, so they moved elsewhere. One of them ended up in Gary, Indiana and my grandfather went to Jackson, Tennessee. Interestingly enough, my grandfather and Alex Haley’s grandfather practiced medicine together as partners for years.

50BOLD: How old was your grandfather when he died? 

Brown: My grandfather made it to the age of 102.  I was the last person sitting on the side of his bed when he died. He had a journal that I received when I was in my 30s practicing law. The journal was passed on to me by my grandfather’s lawyer who was an old man at that point. Unfortunately, in an act of vindictiveness, my first wife destroyed it some 30 years ago. I had a Choctaw Native American grandmother on my mother’s side, and she had an interesting attitude toward life. She taught library science at Lane College up in Jackson, Tennessee. My grandfather was also a college physician up there.

50BOLD: And what about your paternal grandfather? 

Brown: My paternal grandfather was one of Bishop Charles Mason’s disciples (Editor’s note: Mason was the founder and first Senior Bishop of the Church of God in Christ, based in Memphis).

He took a coach to Kansas City in 1896 and received a doctoral degree in divinity. My grandmother, who was from New Orleans, was a school teacher. And her father was a very interesting Irishman who had other brothers. One went to Canada. Another went to New Orleans. The third one stayed in South Carolina and bought nearly four thousand slaves; he was a sea captain. But anyway, the one in New Orleans married my grandmother, so that’s how I got so high bright. And some of my attitude, I get from the Irishman side and also from the Native American side that are in me. It is what it is. We have this family tradition of service to the people.

50BOLD: You presided over the appeal of James Earl Ray, who murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray was convicted of the assassination yet, you thought he was not guilty and was rather, the victim of a conspiracy. How so?

Brown: It was three years of being the last criminal court judge on the James Earl Ray case. And it would have been my finding that James Earl Ray’s rifle was not the murder weapon. I know what the murder weapon was. I have the invoice listing of the weapons and the very peculiar ammunition that is consistent with what they pulled out of Dr. King’s body. And it looked like the FBI actually supplied the murder weapon, ammunition, and recruited a two-man hit team from the Marine Corps Base Quantico, where they had a sniper school, right down from where the FBI had a training academy.

The FBI got five of these weapons invoiced in late December 1967. King was killed in the beginning of April 1968 and the Justice Department demanded, that the FBI return the five particular, and peculiar weapons, back to the Defense Department. But the FBI conducted an inventory and claimed they lost one. The numbers for the remaining four are known, and the serial numbers for the initial five are known. The weapon is the murder weapon because it is consistent on all fours in the aspects of what killed King.

James Earl Ray had been saying that he entered an Alford plea. You must understand he never confessed. Never! An Alford plea comes from the moderately old Supreme Court case known as North Carolina v. Alford which stands for the proposition, that even if you are innocent, you may plead guilt, if you do so freely, voluntarily, understandingly, knowingly, advisedly, and intelligently. And the state has a reasonable factual basis upon which otherwise to proceed. The only independent evidence they had was supposedly James Earl Ray’s rifle. It was never retested.

The two-man hit team shot him from the firehouse tower and not the bushes. They had rehearsed this at some great length a few weeks prior to this. When Dr. King was shot, the FBI never conducted any ballistics tests. The people who took this shot were professionals. The original judge had given an unprecedented press conference and he said, ‘I’m sure Ray is guilty!’ The judge thought Ray might have been a co-conspirator, but he was certain, he didn’t act alone. Interestingly enough, the judge did not show up for court the next day. So, they set out search parties looking for him and found his body under a desk. He supposedly died of a heart attack.

I then wound up with the case. When I had the rifle retested after a whole lot of in-and-out mess with the state, they did not want it retested because ‘It might be damaged in the process which would keep it from being retested in the future.’ Now, the rifle was excluded. Also in the records, there were quite a number of memoranda acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. They were replete with internal discussions on whether or not to kill King, or with the consideration being, whether he would be more dangerous as a dead martyr or a live agitator. They were not worried about Civil Rights. They were worried about whether he would, 1) revitalize labor, or 2) galvanize the anti-war movement as he had with the Civil Rights Movement.

Judge Brown out and about greeting his supporters.

50BOLD: Wow, that was some case you presided over. Are there any criminal cases you handled that were extremely challenging or dangerous to you or others? And when did you go into private practice?

Brown: I went into private practice in the late 70s. One of my law partners had become a public defender. He got killed that involved a big mess behind a major drug bust that involved the Feds. There were some 40 people who ended up dying—lawyers, defendants, police, detectives. In fact, I was the only lawyer who survived out of all of them involved in these cases, and my two clients, were the only two who walked out of there alive. It was kind of hectic.

50BOLD:  It’s horrible how so many were killed. How did some of them die? Were they set up as accidents? 

Brown: One detective supposedly fell and cracked his skull on the steps during an ice and snow period. Another one did the same thing supposedly on the curb. One of them died when a portable TV fell into his bathtub. Another one died when a radio fell into his bathtub. One of them was in the National Guard and he supposedly dropped a loaded M16A1 rifle. Why would he have it loaded on maneuvers? I don’t know! It supposedly went off, shot him under the chin, and killed him!

50BOLD: That certainly was a dangerous case that could have cost you your life. What did you do after that horrific experience? 

Brown: I wound up volunteering with the public defender’s office. What I did then was handle major violators and habitual criminals. I volunteered to train the capital defense team, and I wound up with 42 first degree murder cases. Some of them were my private cases, but a lot of them involved what I was doing to train the team. We had a policy in Tennessee that even if somebody could afford one defense lawyer, or capital murder case, he was entitled to have a second one appointed. So, all of the I’s got dotted and the T’s got crossed. And in order to be a second appointed council, he had to be qualified. Now, there are lawyers right now who have never tried six criminal cases in their whole lives!

50BOLD: Let’s talk about your television show. Your show, Judge Joe Brown, had an enviable run for 15 years. You were the second highest-paid daytime television personality behind Judge Judy. You were the second longest-running television jurist for many years prior to the cancellation of your show. So, when the show was cancelled, were you ready to move on?

Brown:  When I got the show, I had it for 15 years, and unlike every other show, I was actually sanctioned by the California Supreme Court. Back in 2000, they issued a 23-page written opinion saying that I was doing official arbitration. Actual arbitration under the California Arbitration, Mediation and Judicial Act. So, I could fine people in contempt, and what I ordered was binding anywhere in the state of California. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, that under the U.S. Arbitration Act of 1928, that what I was doing was enforceable anywhere in the country. And I never said, I was a court show. I always said, I was doing arbitration.

What wound up happening is what started out with Paramount, then went to CBS which was another Viacom affiliate. Paramount was too hot top heavy with nepotism in there. And they brought in Roger King, who discovered Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, and they gave him Judy and I. So, all four of us were in this primo special CBS syndication unit. King came to me and said, ‘I don’t like what they’re trying to do with you,’ and I didn’t like it either. So, he wound up flipping the script on everybody before he died of a heart attack.

It wound up that Judy was number one in syndication, and I was number two. I was stepping on Judy’s heels all the time. But every time I did, CBS would change their rating schedule with Nielsen so I wouldn’t do so. When I quit, I just refused to endorse certain agendas that they wanted. I said, ‘I’m over 65. I’ve done this 15 years. I’ve had a long career, done everything I wanted to do in it. I’m okay.’ I know this wife I had… went through a four-year long California divorce, she was going to get most of it. (laughs). I didn’t want to be bothered with Hollywood anymore because it was a poisonous place. So, this is my life story up to the moment, and now, I’m running for mayor of Memphis, Tennessee because I got recruited.

50BOLD: Who recruited you and how did that come about?  

Brown: A friend of mine, Dr. Barbara Cooper, whom I’ve known since 1974, recruited me. And unfortunately, she slipped, fell, and wounded up with a badly damaged hip. She was going on 94. The oldest legislator in Tennessee, she was still a regular attendant and never missed a session or committee meeting. Barbara got a blood clot, slipped into a coma, and eventually died from its complications. And interestingly enough, the local mainstream media refuses to even acknowledge that I’m even in the race!

50BOLD: Will that be a problem for you?

 Brown: No. Every poll they have, I win. The last one had nine people in it, and considering the runoff, I got 47%. The next person out of the nine got 36, so yeah, I would have been the mayor, if they had held the election then. So, our upcoming election is in October.

50BOLD: As a criminal court judge, you were known for your non-traditional ways of handing out sentences and your methods produced amazing results. Can you talk a little about that?

Brown: When you look at something, there’s a big picture. A lot of things that you might need to do are not necessarily tasteful, but they deal with the American way–fundamental fairness, justice, equity, and equality of treatment. There is something I’m proud of. I was elected to two eight-year terms as a criminal court judge in Tennessee, and over that time period, the statewide recidivism for felons was 80 percent. Except in my court room where I got it reduced down to 18 percent and it was dropping when I retired to do the show full time. In my courtroom, anyone I put on bond or probation had to deal with Judge Joe’s counseling sessions. I would counsel everyone I put on probation.

I would also personally patrol the city. And you might find me at 11:00 pm talking to ten or fifteen youths, three or four that I had put on probation. I’d be chewing them out because I told them to be in for a 10:00 pm curfew, it was going on midnight, and they were still walking around the streets. See, I didn’t just approach this as a judge. I approached this as village chieftain. And if you’re going to be chief you have to have order.

I had a whole lot of things I was doing that were novel as far as the sentences I imposed. If you did what I wanted you to do–be productive and become a good citizen– then I would let you out of jail, or give you some slack. Otherwise, I had novel ways of ensuring that crossing me was a bad move. But it all worked out because people wanted somebody in charge. I’d go and speak at the local workhouse or correctional center. I’d also speak to the warden who was shocked, that I’d receive a standing ovation from the very same people I placed in those facilities. But I’d give them the key to their jail cell with advice on how to get out of it.

Many inmates complied with what I’d advise them to do. So, some years later, I’d have these people thanking me for what I did for them. They’d point out how I stressed to them what life was all about, manning up, and taking responsibility. See, I never went this legal route to make money. Never! My profession was not my chosen one. But it just came about because I had an interest in what was going on, right and wrong, with people. Everyone in my family was about doing the right thing for people, and this was instilled in me.

Judge Brown’s yummy bbq sauce!

50BOLD: What do you think is the main problem with our youth, particularly young males?

Brown: We’re seeing a lack of character in our community and across the United States because we are out of balance. We have attempted to emasculate our communities and have no fathers in the homes. We have no fathers in the hood. We have no culture that is putting fatherhood front and center, so that boys can understand, what it means to be a man. Being a man means, that your job is to make where you live better, safer, secure, with economic prosperity, purpose, morality, and ethics. And if we do not teach these young boys what is expected of them when they grow up, they will be out of control.

One thing we don’t have right now is leadership from someone, who can go out and lead, and inspire youth to develop character. You see, I know most boys want to be men. Most adult males want to be men. But just because you are a male and you are otherwise an adult, does not mean you are a man. There are certain things you have to do to become a man or a woman for that matter.

We have had 50 years of a process of glorification of disfunction, and propaganda, foolish and ill-begotten, and it has worked. We have had a thing not just against Black men, but against all men in this country–a very stupid program of emasculation. We need men who will get up and give up their seats on the lifeboat, the next time the Titanic goes down. We don’t have too many of these kinds of men these days because boys, are not being taught how to be men.

That’s why you always need people who think outside the box. You need someone who can charismatically, get up close and personal, to speak to the youth on the streets without fear of getting highjacked or killed. You need someone, who can inspire our youth to help them gain a purpose and cause. You need someone, who can excite these young people about all of the possibilities there are in this world for them.

50BOLD: I hear you, but there are people who feel a lot of politicians just talk a good game, and take no real action once in office. There are others who feel that voting doesn’t matter, especially when they don’t like the candidates running for office. What are your thoughts?

Brown: Whether you like someone or not, let’s do the cold-blooded calculus. I have one vote. Maybe I can contribute to someone’s election. What do I get for that vote? Basically, voting comes down to choosing someone, who can bring about positive changes like public peace and order. It also involves honor, decency, and respect. Are we supporting somebody’s policy where all these things are going out the window? Or, are we saying, ‘I don’t care!’ Remember, I’m an independent and don’t care about anybody, except for what’s effective.

50BOLD: Where do you stand on police reform and what actions do you think need to be implemented for changes in the police department?

Brown: I have an extensive and very detailed plan to do something about it. Crime is rampant everywhere including in the Black community. What we do need is a total revision in the structure of the typical U.S. police department. The police department needs to be restructured like the U.S. Pentagon and the Department of Defense. You have a civilian commander-in-chief, that’s the president, a civilian secretary of defense, one over the army, one over the navy, etc. and sub-secretaries, who are civilians. We need the same thing. We don’t need civil service chiefs of police. We need civilian directors over homicide, uniform patrols, sex crimes, property crimes, trafficking, etc. We need direct communications input by the citizenry. We need to get the people in the community to go out on patrols, along with the police, so they can say, ‘Young man, come here! What do you think you’re doing? We need to talk to you.’ We need to start putting the civilian context back into what’s going on.

And the other thing is that the police in my experience have been a one-one reflection of the political realities in the area. If the police don’t treat you like anything, then your representation is not good. Examine the people whom you have chosen to represent you because they are not doing their job. We need to revise what the police are all about. 

50BOLD: I understand you’ve studied martial arts and have a great interest in it.

Brown: I have taken martial arts for the last 55 years. I have to share an interesting story that involves two other friends of mine, also martial arts masters. Dr. Cliff Stewart was my unofficial brother who passed away. He was a Pendekar, master of tactical martial arts. Dr. Ron Shepell, who is also a friend, Dr. Stewart, and I, created a program where we would take 200 elementary and grade school children to the movies in downtown L.A. every Wednesday.

Now, Dr. Shepell, used to run a playground at Trinity Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. The school was probably the worst in the city when we got in there. We got the children into the movies free of charge. It was just us three who were young men at the time who kept those 200 children so absolutely quiet! The movie patrons were shocked at discovering that all of those children had been in attendance at the shows. We got them ALL in for free. I volunteered my time to work with these children. Now, you know at least one of our students was a skinny 12-year-old, and his name was Barry White. Yes, he was the late singer.

50BOLD: Wait, Barry White was skinny as a youth? That’s something rarely known.

Brown:  Barry was a skinny 12-year-old. By the way, his age was pushed up because he had such a deep voice. One of the other kids in the program just happened to be Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams who co-founded the L.A. Crips and who was executed for his crimes in 2005. Stanley was one of our playground volunteers and we tried to teach him a lot. We couldn’t get his mother to go along with the program. We couldn’t get him out of the swamp, so he just became the baddest alligator in the swamp. Now, I think it was wrong for the then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, not to commute his sentence to life especially after he repented and changed his life to speak out against gang violence. He also wrote several children’s books which were outstanding. He tried to convey to children, what we tried to teach him….

50BOLD: Besides running for mayor, what is next on your agenda? Are you thinking about writing an autobiography?

Brown:  I’m not interested in writing an autobiography. I am writing a science fiction book where I will be exploring certain things. I’m also writing, what I guess you would call, a philosophy book. Check out my Twitter page, @JudgeJoeBrownTV, because a lot of what I post is from my book.

50BOLD: How can our readers support your mayoral campaign and endeavors?

Brown:  Okay, I do service and sauce and I’m going to give you information about both of them. My Cash App is $JudgeJoeBrown2023. The website for the campaign is Now, on the website there are two ways you can donate to my campaign, via Cash App or credit card. On my site, you’ll be able to see what we’re up to and what we stand for, and I’ll attempt to answer questions and that kind of thing. My campaign slogan is ‘Send Brown downtown and take back the town.’ Now that’s service! I also have a barbeque sauce–Judge Joe Brown’s All Natural BBQ Sauce.

50BOLD:  If folks are interested in purchasing your Judge Joe Brown’s All Natural BBQ Sauce where would they find it?

Brown: You can order my sauce at You’ll like it, trust me! We have two kinds of sauces, hot and mild. We have seasonings, hot and mild. Tiffany Haddish is one of our investors. We also have some funny commercials for the products lined up.

50BOLD: What message do you have for our 50-plus audience?

Brown:  If it’s going wrong, nine times out of ten, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. If there’s adversity you have to deal with, then deal with it! The only time you’re going to escape adversity is to be dead and buried. If you want to enjoy something, then enjoy doing it responsibly. And lastly, it is not a matter of being all that you can be, because you can be a damn fool; be what you ought to be!