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Remembering H. Rap Brown

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A permanent casualty of his violent rhetoric
In his closing arguments of the murder trial of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin -- still better known by his 1960s radical tag, H. Rap Brown -- defense attorney Tony Axam demanded that jurors decide the case on who they were and where they were born. This was a not-so-veiled effort to stir visions in the nine African-American jurors of police raids, shoot- outs, murders, and government conspiracies against blacks.

It didn't work. Jurors rejected the notion that Al-Amin was not tried for murdering Atlanta sheriff's deputy Ricky Kinchen and severely wounding his partner Aldranon English, but was part of the three decades long effort by the government to nail a 1960s black radical. They swiftly convicted him of murder and assault. The death penalty loomed as possible punishment.

Still, the FBI's 1960s secret war against black militants is well documented. The war was an unabashed attempt by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to decapitate militant black leadership. And Al-Amin nee Brown seemed a prime candidate for the government blitz against that leadership.

I remember a Black Panther fund-raiser in Los Angeles in 1968. Brown sat in the middle of the stage garbed in a shiny black leather jacket and a black beret cocked at an angle on his head. He was flanked by a small army of black leather jacketed bodyguards and assorted hanger ons.

The crowd of several thousand roared with delight when a speaker announced that Brown had been "appointed" and had accepted the title of Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party. This was the culmination of Brown's militant odyssey from student dissident, to civil rights worker, to chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. By then black radicals regarded SNCC as a badly tainted relic of the civil rights movement that they deeply reviled.

His speech to the crowd was defiant, brash, laced with profanities, and filled with threats to kill the police and calls for blacks to burn down America's cities. Brown, at times, seemed to take special delight in picking words that had maximum shock value on crowds. Yet what was needed was not bold threats to destroy the "white establishment," "the white man," "white devil," or white oppressor" but concrete activities and programs for those genuinely committed to change.

Even the title of his book, "Die Nigger Die!: A Political Biography," soon to be reissued to capitalize on Brown's trial notoriety, was calculated for hyper shock effect. It was long on attacks on those moderate black leaders Brown branded "Negro sell-outs" and "Uncle Toms" and lengthy exhortations urging blacks to kill and die for the revolution. Yet it was totally devoid of any strategy or program for black political and economic empowerment.

By the mid 1970s, the Panthers were in their final death agonies. Panther leaders dropped like flies from police bullets and their own bullets, degenerated into dope dealing, hustling and extortion. Some drifted away, afflicted with terminal disillusionment with the violent rhetoric of black radicals.

But Brown was unrepentant. He remained trapped by his tough guy image and seemed destined to be a permanent casualty of his violent rhetoric. He seemed utterly incapable of making the transition from radical mouthpiece to effective community organizer and leader. There were repeated brushes with the law that ended in a bungled robbery attempt and a shoot-out with New York police. This landed him in prison for five years.

Brown reversed his downhill slide in 1976, did his mea culpa for his past, embraced Islam, rechristened himself with a Muslim name, established a nationwide string of mosques, the National Ummah, that battled against drugs and prostitution and for community economic uplift. Yet there were ominous signs that Al-Amin may not have completely buried the violent past that had caused him and so many other blacks terrible personal grief and pain. During a five-year stretch from 1992 to 1997, he was investigated for assaults, homicides, and illegal weapons possession. Brown was never charged in any of these cases. This confirmed to supporters that the government neither forgave or forgot his activism and was still determined to get him.

The three-week trial fueled a fresh round of media talk on how and where Al-Amin, the Panthers, and other 1960s black radicals went wrong. And how much has changed in the decades since they commanded blacks to pick up the gun and burn America to the ground.

They are right. Much has changed. Legal segregation is dead, and blacks are better educated, more prosperous, and more politically influential than ever in America. But the conviction of Al-Amin should not be a requiem for the memory and idealism of those 1960s activists who sincerely believed they were fighting to make that change. For a brief moment, one of those was Brown.

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Albion Monitor March 17, 2002 (

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