H. Rap Brown – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
One of the most polarizing figures in the black freedom movement, H. Rap Brown rose to prominence as chairman of the Atlanta-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the late 1960s. Brown later converted to Islam and adopted the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.
Hubert Gerold Brown was born on October 4, 1943 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her father, Eddie Charles Brown Sr., worked for Esso Oil, and her mother, Thelma Warren Brown, was a domestic worker and elementary school teacher. From an early age, Hubert Brown excelled in a form of street poetry known as dozens, and his verbal dexterity earned him the nickname “Rap”.
After a stint in sociology at Southern University, Brown moved to Washington, D.C., to join his brother in the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). NAG was an affiliate campus of SNCC, and most of its members, including future SNCC President Stokely Carmichael, attended Howard University. By 1965, Brown’s unique ability to organize both students and community members had earned him the post of president of the NAG. In March of that year, he joined a delegation of civil rights leaders for a White House summit with President Lyndon Johnson regarding the suffrage protests in Selma, Alabama, and directly criticized the president. for his inaction.
In the fall of 1966, Brown left Washington for Alabama, where he led SNCC’s voter registration efforts in Greene County. Having worked in Holmes County, Mississippi, during the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, he was familiar with the difficulties of black voter registration in the Deep South. In Alabama, Brown was part of SNCC’s efforts to cultivate liberty organizations—independent black political parties at the county level—through which residents could challenge Democratic control in the region. Despite disappointing results at the polls, Brown impressed SNCC leaders and rose to the position of Alabama State Project Director.
The late 1960s witnessed a major shift in focus for SNCC. Once the main legislative goals of the civil rights movement had been achieved, leaders like SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael began calling for black power. When Carmichael faced legal trouble in the spring of 1967, the organization met at Paschal’s Restaurant in Atlanta and chose Brown to replace him. Most hoped that Brown would attract less media attention than Carmichael. Brown’s goals for SNCC included transforming it into a human rights organization in solidarity with the decolonized world, opposing the Vietnam War (1964-1973), and reinvigorating freedom organizations that had suffered setback in the 1966 elections.
Yet Brown soon proved to be as defiant as Carmichael. In press conferences and speeches, his outspoken manner struck many as aggressive. At a time when the Cold War had narrowed the scope of acceptable political discourse, his outspoken support for African socialism and his frequent quotations of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong seemed out of place. In a scathing critique of American culture often interpreted as a threat, Brown told a news group that the violence was as “American as cherry pie.”
Many young people, however, found Brown’s radical message and confrontational style refreshing. He denounced American racism in terms rarely used by more conventional civil rights leaders, and he espoused a revolutionary-nationalist politics that echoed that of the California-based Black Panther Party, of which he would become an honorary officer. Yet SNCC’s organizational effectiveness declined as controversy seemed to follow its charismatic new leader.
On July 24, 1967, at the invitation of veteran civil rights leader Gloria Richardson, Brown gave a speech in Cambridge, Maryland. From the top of a car, he spoke out against the economic exploitation of black communities, comparing black Americans to colonized peoples around the world. “If this town doesn’t come back,” he told his audience, “this town should be burned down.” Accounts of what happened next vary widely, but Brown received a non-fatal head wound from police buckshot and a fire broke out in the city’s majority-black Second Ward.
Almost immediately, Brown racked up charges with state and federal authorities for offenses ranging from inciting a riot and promoting criminal unionism to interstate transportation of firearms while under attack. an indictment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program (FBI COINTELPRO) had recently stepped up its attempts to neutralize activists like Brown, and the Cambridge incident fueled their pursuit. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named Brown and others in a memorandum calling on field offices to find ways to discredit prominent black activists. Brown spent much of his presidency in and out of prison, and in the summer of 1968 Phil Hutchings took over the leadership of the nearly moribund SNCC.
Brown’s 1969 political autobiography, Die nigger die!, written in the same provocative style that characterized his original speeches, was inspired by the work of revolutionary theorists like Régis Debray and Frantz Fanon. Such manifestos were integral to the counterculture of the late 1960s, and Brown railed against what he saw as the co-optation of Black Power politics by those less committed to its core tenets. He fleshed out his own nationalist-revolutionary policy, the main tenets of which were now anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism.
Such ideas formed the basis of the short-lived H. Rap Brown Liberation School, a preschool organized in 1969 by the Afro-American Society of Atlanta. Located on Beckwith Street near the city’s historically black colleges, the school was one of several independent such institutions to appear during the height of the Black Power movement.
In March 1970, Brown was due to stand trial in Bel Air, Maryland, on charges stemming from the Cambridge incident. When a car bomb killed two SNCC activists in the area, Brown went into hiding. He remained undercover until authorities apprehended him in an October 1971 shooting outside a New York bar.
Brown served five years in Attica Correctional Institution for robbery related to the shooting, during which time he converted to Islam and became Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He spent the next quarter century as a Muslim religious leader in Atlanta’s West End, where he restored a house and opened a small grocery store. Known locally as Imam Jamil, Al-Amin has endeared himself to the West End community, playing basketball with local teenagers and leading efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.
No longer a leading radical, Al-Amin seems to have settled into a more temperate activism. But in 2000, a second meeting with the police places him at the center of another, more deadly controversy. In 1999, Al-Amin was arrested following a traffic stop in Cobb County. When he failed to show up for a court appearance the following year, two Fulton County sheriff’s deputies were tasked with serving a warrant for his arrest. A shooting ensued outside his grocery store, and when the smoke cleared, one MP was lying dead, the other injured. Despite the presence of evidence to the contrary, including the account of an eyewitness who said he was “absolutely certain” that Al-Amin was not the attacker, Al-Amin was found guilty by a jury. representative and sentenced to life imprisonment. On the same day the jury returned its verdict, a state trial judge ruled that Al-Amin’s initial arrest by a Cobb County patrolman was the result of a search and improper seizure. Al-Amin maintains his innocence, and subsequent appeals have included new exculpatory evidence, including a statement from federal inmate Otis Jackson, who confessed to the crime.
As an inmate at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Al-Amin assumed the role of religious leader and sought to secure religious privileges for the facility’s small population of Muslim prisoners – activities that sparked concern of prison officials. Although he found no evidence of wrongdoing by Al-Amin, an investigation by Reidsville officials was later cited by the FBI as the basis for his transfer to a federal facility, where he would spend the seven next few years in solitary confinement. Supporters say Al-Amin’s transfer to federal custody is part of a pattern of mistreatment by a bureau that monitored his activities throughout the 1990s, producing a dossier of around 44,000 pages, but no arrests. no charges. In 2017, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that prosecutors violated Al-Amin’s constitutional right not to testify, but refused to overturn his conviction, citing “weighty” evidence against him. . When considering his appeal two years later, a federal appeals court confirmed that prosecutorial misconduct had occurred, but determined that it was not likely to have affected the verdict. Al-Amin continues to serve the remainder of his life sentence in federal prison.