Abdullah Al-Amin, Jamil 1943–
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin 1943–
American activist Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, gained notoriety in an era of racial strife and social unrest. Brown rallied the support of angry African Americans against the white establishment in the late 1960s by openly supporting acts of violence. He became widely known to the public after becoming chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and his inflammatory statements were reported frequently in newspapers and on television news. Several of his fiery exhortations delivered in ghettos of cities with large black populations were cited as direct causes of wide-scale riots during that turbulent time. His most often quoted statement of the era was “violence is as American as cherry pie.” During his time on the stage of racial and political insurrection, Brown always maintained that his call for violence was justified in retaliation against the violent suppression of blacks by whites.
Brown said in his autobiography Die Nigger Die! that he developed a keen sense of the lowly status of the black community in the United States while growing up in Louisiana. He claimed that he was forever arguing with teachers in high school because they wouldn’t admit that racial prejudice was rampant in the works of authors such as William Shakespeare. While studying sociology at Southern University, he felt again that the school was making no commitment to the elimination of racial prejudice.
After graduating from college, Brown attempted to work with antipoverty programs to effect a better life for people of color in the United States. Charles Puttkammer wrote in American Heritage of how effective Brown was at easing tensions between police and the local black community. He and Brown worked with the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C. during the spring of 1965. According to Puttkammer, the local police captain was so impressed that he thought Brown would make a good policeman and even asked him to take the police entrance exam. Little did the captain know that a few years later, Brown would be urging black Americans to take up arms against the police.
It wasn’t long before Brown became even more disenchanted with how the system dealt with blacks in the United States. He felt that black identity was being erased
At a Glance…
Born Hubert Gerold Brown (became known as H. Rap Brown in the late 1960s; took name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin in the 1970s), October 4, 1943, in Baton Rouge, LA; son of Eddie C. (an oil company worker) and Thelma (Warren) Brown; married, wife’s name Karima; children: C. Ali, Kairi. Education: Attended Southern University, 1960-64. Religion: Converted to Islam in the 1970s.
Librarian in U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, 1964-65; Nonviolent Action Group, Washington, DC, chairman, beginning 1964; neighborhood worker in government poverty program in Washington, DC, 1965; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizer in Greene County, AL, 1966, Alabama state project director, 1966, SNCC chairman, 1967-68; named minister of justice, Black Panther Party, 1968; imprisoned for robbery in state of New York, 1971-76; operator of the Community Store, a small grocery store in Atlanta, GA, beginning 1976; leader of the Community Mosque, Atlanta.
Addresses: Office —The Community Store, 1128 Oak St. S.W., Atlanta, GA 30310.
by authorities who wanted blacks to be assimilated into the status quo. As he wrote in his autobiography: “The poverty program was designed to take those people whom the government considered threatening to the structure and buy them off. It didn’t address itself to the causes of poverty but to the effects of poverty.” Brown took his complaints to the top of the government in 1965 after he had become chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Nonviolent Action Group. While he and other black leaders met with President Lyndon Johnson, Brown did not hesitate to verbally assault the president on his racial policies. Brown and his fellow black radicals of the time claimed that the nonviolent policies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders were no longer of any value in the fight for black equality.
In 1966, Brown became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Alabama. In this role he often subjected himself to the wrath of local whites and police as he urged blacks to get out and vote, and to seek public office. His leap from obscure field worker to frequent news topic took place when, at age 24, he replaced Stokely Carmichael as chairman of the SNCC in 1967. At his first press conference after his appointment, Brown appeared so laid back that Newsweek called him “far less flammable” than Carmichael. However, Carmichael offered a different view when he said of Brown: “You’ll be happy to have me back when you hear from him. He’s a bad man.” Later, Newsweek accused Brown of “hate-mongering,” while Black World referred to him as “a young man of deep sensibilities.”
Presenting an ominous image to white America with his long mustache, Afro hair style, and dark glasses, Brown soon asserted himself in his new position and became more fervent in his claims that racism could be ended only through violent means. According to Robert Weisbrot in Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement, Brown’s remarks were often aired in order to attract media coverage. “Brown’s transformation from a reliable, largely unknown SNCC worker into America’s Negro ogre of choice owed much to the competition of black radical groups to feed reporters headline-grabbing comments,” wrote Weisbrot. Indeed, the news media would often prod Brown into making “provocative and disastrous revelations,” according to Weisbrot.
Around the same time, Brown assumed a new identity, changing his birth name, Hubert Gerold Brown, to H. Rap Brown—which perhaps was a reference to his penchant for “rapping” with ghetto youths. The new mouthpiece of the SNCC told blacks to arm themselves with guns to deal with police oppression, and he urged black veterans returning from Vietnam to put their military skills to work in the rebellion against whites in the ghetto. Brown lambasted President Johnson regularly and said that any blacks trying to stop other blacks from rioting would be dealt with harshly by the black power authorities. As a result, he was watched closely by the FBI and other government bodies, especially since the government already considered the SNCC an enemy of the state due to its opposition of Vietnam war and U.S. Foreign policy in general.
Brown fully endorsed the more militant Black Panthers, a group formed in 1966, as allies in the racial struggle. In Black Protest in the Sixties, he was quoted as saying, “What they’re [Black Panthers] doing is very important. Black people are just beginning to get over their fear of the police and the Panthers are playing an important role in helping them to surmount that fear.” Brown was named a minister of justice of the Black Panther Party in 1968.
Brown also tried to bring other minorities into the fight against the white establishment, including Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and poor whites. But his main focus was to foment active rebellion by blacks in the ghettos of major American cities. He delivered speeches in blighted urban areas around the country, and riots soon followed his appearances in some cities where he pressed for “guerilla war” against whites. In Cambridge, Maryland, in 1967, Brown found an audience of angry blacks who were especially impatient for the town to follow through on civil rights pledges. He was quoted in Newsweek as telling the crowd, “Black folks built America, and if America don’t come around, we’re going to burn America down.” Just hours after his speech there, a fire broke out in the Pine Street School, of which Brown had commented earlier, “You should have burned it down long ago.”
Maryland governor Spiro Agnew did not hesitate to blame Brown for the unrest in his state, as indicated by his remarks quoted in Newsweek: “I hope they pick him [Brown] up soon, put him away and throw away the key.” Accused of instigating arson and riots in Cambridge, Brown was arrested while attempting to board a plane at Washington D.C.’s National Airport. He was released on bail, all the time claiming that President Johnson was to blame for the riots and had sent “white killers” into black communities to murder blacks.
The Cambridge incident began a long series of legal entanglements for Brown. In August of 1968 he was found guilty by a federal grand jury of carrying an M-l carbine rifle aboard an airline flight, which was an illegal act for any person who was aware of being indicted for another crime. Although Brown asserted that at the time he was unaware of his indictment for the Maryland riots, the judge slapped him with the maximum sentence of five years and a $2,000 fine. His attorney, William Kunstler, complained that Brown and his supporters were being harassed by the legal establishment due to their controversial views and said he would appeal the case.
At the apex of Brown’s notoriety, his autobiography Die Nigger Die! was published to mixed reviews. In Saturday Review, August Meier called it “a poorly organized essay” that was packed with “propagandistic verse, calls for revolution, and savage attacks upon white society and middle-class Negroes.” While Shane Stevens in the New York Times Book Review said that it was “a hymn of hate for white America,” he also called it “a moving and rather eloquent plea… for a revolutionary struggle of oppressed peoples everywhere,” and a “somehow very appealing look at the making of one revolutionist.”
Brown made it clear in his book that he had no use for blacks who weren’t willing to use force against white oppressors. He also revealed some modesty by denying that he held any special place in the Black Power Movement. “When I was head of the SNCC,” he wrote, “that’s all I was. I was not a leader of black people. I had a public platform…and therefore what I said got heard by a lot of people.” Brown also revealed his disdain for the “coffeehouse intellectual” form of black militants, who he said spent “all their time trying to program white people into giving them money.”
Although the book kept H. Rap Brown’s name in the public eye, the author himself disappeared from view in April of 1970 before the beginning of his trial over the Cambridge incidents. The FBI put him on their “Most Wanted” list and began hunting for him. He stayed out of sight for 17 months, until being spotted near the scene of a holdup and shoot-out at a saloon in New York City. Police shot Brown, arrested him on a rooftop near the scene of the crime, and charged him and three other black militants with armed robbery and attempted murder.
During the long delay between his arrest and trial, Brown initially denied his identity. While incarcerated he converted to the Sunni Muslim faith. On the opening day of his trial in 1973, Brown preempted his lawyer, delivering the opening statements for himself and his codefendants. He began his presentation with a Muslim prayer, then proceeded to deliver a rambling speech about philosophy, religion, and law. According to Newsweek, he told the jurors, “Bear in mind, man-made law is not ultimate law.” Despite his appeal to a higher authority, Brown was found guilty.
After being paroled from prison in 1976, Brown—who began using the Muslim name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin—moved to Atlanta, where he opened a small grocery and health store. He had put his violent ways behind him, demonstrating a more subdued and contented demeanor due to his focus on the Muslim faith, and he later became leader of the Community Mosque in Atlanta. When the Washington Post interviewed him in 1978, Al-Amin said, “I don’t miss the ’60s.”
In the mid-1980s, Al-Amin was working with neighbors in Atlanta on plans to build a religious school. Having withdrawn to the periphery the civil rights front, he made something of a rare appearance in 1991, attending the dedication of the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in September of that year in Memphis, Tennessee. When approached in 1992 for his reaction to the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict, he claimed that racial justice had not improved since his days of active protest. According to Jet magazine, he commented, “What scale can you measure progress on if the response to injustice is the same? I don’t see any progress.…The struggle put into motion when the first African was enslaved is still the struggle that is at hand today.”
Entering the scene at a time in history when protest movements had become a major force in society and civil rights movements in particular had kindled the repressed anger of centuries of black rage against white domination, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, better known as H. Rap Brown, burst forth like a flash fire. Along with Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, and other well-recognized black militants of the time, he made an indelible mark on the history of black power in the United States.
Die Nigger Die!, Dial Press, 1969.
Brown, H. Rap, Die Nigger Die!, Dial Press, 1969.
Forman, James, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Macmillan, 1972, pp. 471, 502, 529, 530.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick, editors, Black Protest in the Sixties, Quadrangle Books, 1970, pp. 18, 240, 264.
Weisbrot, Robert, Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement, Norton, 1990, pp. 260, 264-265.
American Heritage, October 1991, p. 34.
Black World, October 1975, pp. 51-52, 82-87.
Jet, August 10, 1992, p. 8.
Newsweek, August 7, 1967, p. 28; June 3, 1968, p. 37; February 12, 1973, p. 32; September 27, 1993, p. 60.
New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1969, pp. 6, 38.
Saturday Review, May 3, 1969, p. 48.
Village Voice, November 2, 1967, pp. 1, 25, 31.
Washington Post, June 15, 1978; September 19, 1985.
Die Nigger Diet, Dial Press, 1969.