Rabble rouser: The FBI conspiracy against H. Rap Brown
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The following is the second part of a revised, updated version of an article on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) conspiracy against Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, known during the 1960s as the firebrand Black Power advocate H. Rap Brown, which originally appeared in The Michigan Citizen in the April 7th-April 13th and April 14th-April 20th, 2002, issues.
We are presenting it to our readers as necessary background on how the FBI has historically related to African American and Islamic radicalism in light of the Oct. 28, 2009, killing of Detroit Imam Luqman Abdullah, the 53-year-old spiritual leader of Masjid Al-Haqq, by a task force led by Detroit FBI special agents. — PL.
Part II of III
A ‘new type’ of black threat
Two reports from the FBI’s Inspection Division in 1967 and ‘68 make it clear that the bureau had moved to a war footing against radical black activists, chief among them Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, then known as H. Rap Brown, chairman of the black nationalist Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The aim, the reports show, was “neutralizing” these individuals and their organizations under the umbrella of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, better known as COINTELPRO.
In an Oct. 27, 1967, report, Assistant Director William Mark Felt, Sr., head of the bureau’s Inspection Division and a favorite of Director J. Edgar Hoover (who later elevated Felt to associate deputy director, a new number-three spot), nevertheless mildly contradicted his boss’s position of scapegoating black militants by locating a “new type” of black threat within the tinderbox of U. S. race relations:
“Today, with the appearance of the new type of militant agitator, who has evolved from unsettled racial and social conditions,” Felt advised, “new problems have appeared, which parallel the dangers presented by the pure communist elements” that had preoccupied the FBI and its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, for the previous half-century.
“Primary targets of these investigations should be the semi-professional hate-mongers and rabble rousers who spend much of their time teaching the ghetto’s youth, unemployed, and other receptive individuals doctrines of hate,” Felt declared.
“Investigations and counterintelligence techniques specifically designed to disrupt, frustrate, and discourage the work of these individuals would undoubtedly have far-reaching effects toward achieving the objective of controlling racial violence in your territory,” he noted.
In a May 17, 1968 report, Felt commended the New York division for several unspecified successes — portions of the report were withheld from release — while directing it to beef up its infiltration of informers.
“New York has executed a number of effective counter-intelligence measures,” Felt noted. “Every opportunity should be taken to expose to public scrutiny such groups as SNCC where this might have a neutralizing effect as well as to impede efforts in consolidating or recruiting youthful adherents,” he urged.
Felt then confirmed something about the government’s actions toward Al-Amin that had been suspected by many of his SNCC colleagues, including former executive secretary James Forman.
“During the summer of 1967,” Forman wrote in his 1972 memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, “the repression of SNCC chairman H. Rap Brown had begun its steady climb toward the point at which Brown had to go underground to survive. …
“[H]e found himself in some fourteen courts in fourteen different parts of the United States, facing every kind of charge and legal harassment. …” “It had become clear,” Forman continued, “that the government would go all the way to eliminate Rap Brown from the scene. …”
“Rap caught everything,” recalled former SNCC member Omali Yeshitela, formerly Joseph Waller, now chairman of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), in a Jan. 23, 2002, story by Mara Shalhoup in the Atlanta-based Creative Loafing alternative newspaper.
“He caught the stuff that [the government] missed Stokely for. Rap ran into just a virtual buzzsaw of federal and local government attacks, [and] frame-ups … because they were terrified that the civil rights movement was no longer being contained by moderates and that this split mobilized millions of young African people,” Yeshitela said.
FBI Assistant Director Felt recommended just such an onslaught in his 1968 report: “Agents handling Racial Matters should be constantly solicited for ideas and suggestions for further implementation of this program. No opportunity must be lost to develop prosecutive cases, federal or local against these agitators in order to reduce their activities to an absolute minimum.”
Felt communicated the belief at FBI headquarters that only black informers could supply certain kinds of information. Several months earlier, the FBI’s “Top Level Informant Program,” or TOPLEV, was renamed the “Black Nationalist Informant Program,” or BLACKPRO, designed to develop “quality non-organizational sources … for the purpose of expeditiously infiltrating militant black nationalist organizations,” according to a March 12, 1968, memo to the heads of FBI field offices.
“BLACKPRO agents,” Felt advised, “should devote their entire attention to the penetration of Black Nationalists [sic] groups and development of quality sources in a position to furnish high level information concerning individuals such as BROWN, [former SNCC chairman Stokely] CARMICHAEL, and FORMAN rather than in the development of Ghetto informants. These agents,” he concluded, “are not to be given other investigative assignments in accordance with Bureau [FBI headquarters] instructions and should work exclusively on BLACKPRO.”
War at home
In February 1968, SNCC briefly “merged” with the Oakland, Calif.-based Black Panther Party (BPP), led by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver.
Or, as Newton more precisely put it in his 1973 autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, SNCC’s most prominent members were drafted into the BPP leadership, with Kwame Ture (Carmichael) becoming the “honorary prime minister,” Al-Amin the “minister of justice” and James Forman the “minister of foreign affairs.”
On June 26, 1968, New York FBI Special Agent John J. Dunleavy, author of a COINTELPRO proposal to fabricate a fake coloring book to ridicule Al-Amin among his young admirers, was quick to spot the chance to undermine this fragile alliance.
“It is noted,” he wrote to headquarters, “that … the Black Panther organization now occupies desk space in the New York office of SNCC. … During our continued investigation and scrutiny into the SNCC organization, we may … learn more concerning the affiliation between these two organizations. In that event,” Dunleavy advised, “every opportunity will be seized to disrupt their seemingly harmonious relationship.”
In fact, there was little harmony between SNCC and the BPP, and their alliance only served to facilitate the targeting of Al-Amin and his SNCC colleagues. By September, Hoover characterized the BPP as “The greatest threat to the internal security of the Country.”
Hoover thus gave official sanction to the full-scale war then emerging against the BPP, coordinated by federal and military intelligence agencies and state, county, and local police.
The fact that the SNCC-BPP alliance had dissolved the month before did nothing to lessen the heat on Al-Amin and SNCC.
On April 17, 1969, Hoover appeared before the House Appropriations Committee, traditionally used by him to justify and stump for ever-greater funding for his reactionary policies. He declared, “under the leadership of former National Chairman Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, [SNCC] has developed into a full-blown all-Negro revolutionary organization,” a characterization calculated to incite the worst fears of a nervous Congress and confused electorate.
Special Agent Tom
In a tribute to the success of the FBI’s campaign against Al-Amin, Hoover noted, “Brown has been sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined $2,000 for violation of the Federal Firearms Act. He has been indicted on a charge of assaulting and intimidating a Federal officer and obstruction of justice. Brown also has been indicted by the State of Maryland on a charge of inciting arson. He is free on bond awaiting appeal or trial on various charges.”
The “Federal officer” was an “ol’ Negro FBI agent,” as Al-Amin described him in his 1969 autobiography, Die Nigger Die! His name was William H. Smith, Jr., a San Francisco special agent, who claimed that Al-Amin threatened him during a court recess at New Orleans, La., on Feb. 21, 1968.
Smith had testified that he observed Al-Amin at a “Free Huey!” rally at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on Feb. 18, 1968, the day after a similar rally at Oakland.
Federal District Court Judge Lansing L. Mitchell had ordered Al-Amin not to leave southern New York without the court’s permission while he was under a federal indictment. Al-Amin claimed that he hadn’t violated his bond because he went to California to consult with his legal counsel.
There are at least three versions of the exchange between Al-Amin and Smith.
With only minor differences, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International Report (UPI) wire services reported on Feb. 22, 1968, that Al-Amin told Smith, “We’ll get you. You better get your hat ‘cause I’m going to beat you back to the Coast. We better not find out where your house is. If you have any kids [or children] we’ll get them too.”
The Los Angeles Times reported Al-Amin as saying, “Look chump, we’ll get you… If you have any kids, we’ll get them too.”
The only agreement between these accounts and Al-Amin’s is that the Black Power leader referred to the special agent’s children: “I hope your children don’t grow up to be a Tom like you are.”
Judge Mitchell charged Al-Amin with intimidation and “set $50,000 on that charge,” Al-Amin noted.
According to a Sept. 27, 1968 AP report, Judge Mitchell excused himself from Al-Amin’s trial because he was “once an FBI agent.”
Many black activists concluded that the government was intent on killing the movement — by decapitating it.
On March 9, 1970, Al-Amin was scheduled to attend a pretrial hearing at Bel Air in Harford County, Md., on the three-year-old Cambridge riot and incitement-to-riot charges and a new arson charge added by William B. Yates 2d, the state’s attorney for Dorchester County, where Cambridge is located.
According to an article in the Baltimore Afro-American on Jan. 23, 1971, Richard L. Kinlein, the prosecutor of Howard County, Md., where Al-Amin’s trial would eventually be transferred, said that Yates admitted to him during a lunch conversation in April 1970 that he’d added the arson charge, which he “didn’t have evidence to support,” to open the way for FBI intervention.
In Maryland, riot and incitement to riot were misdemeanors, but arson was a felony, which would allow the FBI to issue a fugitive warrant for Al-Amin if he failed to appear for trail.
Kinlein said that he would “rather defend than prosecute” Al-Amin because of the “phony indictment,” reported The New York Times on Nov. 7, 1973.
Yates denied the charge and Kinlein was convicted of contempt of court and fined $350 for making “extrajudicial statements” against a court order, but the arson charge was withdrawn.
Two SNCC associates and close friends of Al-Amin’s drove down from Washington, D. C., to Bel Air: Former program secretary Ralph E. Featherstone, then the manager of the Drum and Spear bookstore, which SNCC members founded in the heart of the black community that was burned-out after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and William H. (Che) Payne, a veteran of the SNCC-organized Black Panther Party at Lowndes County, Ala.
Featherstone’s and Payne’s friends later speculated that the pair “had driven to Bel Air to survey the town and arrange for the safe entry” of Al-Amin, as reported in the Baltimore Afro-American on March 21, 1970.
A quarter-mile outside of Bel Air, while returning to Washington on Highway 1, the car that Featherstone had borrowed earlier that evening was blasted apart by dynamite at 11:42 p.m. The smoking remains of two African American males were found amid the widely scattered debris.
Featherstone’s identity was readily established, partly through his personal effects, but it was initially difficult to determine who the second passenger was. His lower face had been shattered and his hands and feet had been blown off. “He did not have a bone in his body that was intact,” said deputy state medical examiner (and later Wayne County, Mich., chief medical examiner) Dr. Werner U. Spitz.
“For several hours this morning,” Bigart reported from Baltimore, “rumors spread that the unidentified man was the defendant, Mr. Brown.” Nelson and Jackson noted the police department’s “concern that violence might erupt.”
The local authorities quickly claimed that the bomb was being carried by Featherstone and Payne, and apparently went off “accidentally.”
The FBI lent weight to this claim when Director J. Edgar Hoover stated in a telegram, released by Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, that “residues typical of and consistent with those solid deposits remaining after detonation of dynamite” were found in the wreckage, along with fragments of a clock and one or more batteries that “could represent an electrical firing system for a bomb.”
A FBI report concluded that the dynamite had been “resting” on the right front floor of the car, where Payne sat.
Unconvinced, 20 black political leaders, including Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette Miss., Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., and Georgia state representative and former SNCC communications director Julian Bond (now NAACP chairman), issued a statement through the office of Rep. John J. Conyers, Jr. (D., Mich.), also a cosigner.
The statement, quoted in the April 2, 1970, issue of Jet magazine, declared, “Nothing short of a full-scale, impartial investigation will satisfy the black community.”
It pointedly noted: “Almost before the wreckage … was cool, the Maryland authorities were certain that they had the answer. Ralph Featherstone ‘was fooling around with explosives.’ Those of us who knew him are sufficiently convinced of his level-headedness to be desirous of a better explanation of his death.”
James Forman, voicing the opinion of many in SNCC and the black freedom movement, later charged in his memoir that it was “almost surely planted by some government agency.”
On March 21, 1970, the Baltimore Afro-American reported more specific suspicions held by some African Americans. “They believe it [the bombing] was a malicious and violent act planned by Maryland local and state police officials for the sole purpose of murdering” Al-Amin.
Famed radical attorney William M. Kunstler, who was representing Al-Amin, told The Washington Post upon his arrival at Washington, D. C.’s National Airport to attend Featherstone’s funeral on March 14: “I’m always suspicious of the official story. … I don’t trust the FBI on matters involving black people.”
Scribbling while Rome burns
All of the foregoing had good reason to be suspicious of or cynical about the government, and particularly the FBI, because of the latter’s casual attitude toward violence directed at black people.
In the early- and mid-1960s, many activists had witnessed, often as victims, what became a virtual movement ritual: civil-rights workers in Southern racial battlegrounds being brutally attacked by white bigots, some in police uniforms, while FBI special agents calmly took notes rather than action against their assailants.
However, these activists had no way of knowing how deeply the FBI’s lackadaisical view of violence against black people ran, although many wouldn’t have been surprised if they had. It went from ignoring intra-racial violence to actively encouraging it.
For example, during the 1964-65 conflict between Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X, after the latter had broken with the group, the FBI had both factions under a pervasive blanket of intrusive surveillance techniques.
These ran the gamut from electronic surveillance (telephone taps and room bugs) to informers (paid and unpaid) to mail coverage (intercepts, or copying the information from envelopes, and openings) to physical and photographic surveillance to trash covers (where special agents rummaged through garbage cans).
Despite this extraordinary level of penetration into and coverage of both factions, there is no record of the FBI making any serious effort to prevent — or assist local police departments in preventing — Malcolm X’s assassination at a public New York meeting by members of the well-infiltrated Newark NOI mosque, beyond perfunctory advisories whose chief purpose was to protect the reputation of the bureau rather than the besieged Muslim and nationalist leader.
However, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operations (known as the Church Committee after its chair, Idaho Sen. Frank Church) established during its 1975-76 investigation that the FBI did more than stand idly by in the face of internecine conflicts between black groups.
Though “charged with investigating crimes and preventing criminal conduct,” the committee’s final report concluded, the FBI “engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest” (my emphasis).
The committee detailed FBI efforts to pit the Illinois BPP against the Blackstone Rangers street gang (later known as the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation and now the El Rukin tribe of the Moorish Science Temple of America).
Only the maturity of Fred A. Hampton, Sr., the charismatic, 21-year-old Illinois BPP deputy chairman, prevented bloodshed.
However, the Church committee documented that the FBI did succeed in promoting violent clashes between several Southern California BPP chapters and Maulana (then Ron) Karenga’s cultural nationalist organization, US, as well as promoting rifts and factions within the BPP, itself.
The toll on the black freedom movement, and particularly the BPP, was heavy. On Dec. 4, 1969, Illinois BPP “Chairman Fred,” as he was called, who was reportedly slated for a national leadership position, and Mark Clark, the 22-year-old defense captain of the Peoria, Ill., chapter, were assassinated in a pre-dawn raid coordinated by the FBI and a special unit of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office composed of Chicago police officers.
Reading the handwriting on the wall after the Maryland bombing, “H. Rap Brown was nowhere to be found,” James Forman recalled in his memoir. He had “disappeared from the face of the earth,” William Kunstler, Al-Amin’s attorney, said to The Washington Post. “He could be dead, he could be missing, he could be held” somewhere against his will.
On May 5, 1970, the FBI placed Al-Amin on its “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives list, “the first black political-civil rights activist to be added,” according to the Baltimore Afro-American on May 16. A notice and posters were circulated to post offices throughout the country, warning that Al-Amin “should be considered armed and dangerous.”
A year after Al-Amin’s disappearance, Detroiter Sala Andaiye (Lula Adams), who had recently become active in the Black Power movement through the city’s Shrine of the Black Madonna, and her then husband, Taliq (William) Adams, attended a concert by singer, pianist and composer Nina Simone, the stage name of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, at the State University of New York at Albany.
Both vividly recall that “The High Priestess of Soul” (the title of a 1966 record album by Simone, although the classically trained pianist actually hated being pigeonholed into one genre) punctuated her socially conscious set with a question then on the minds and lips of black people throughout the country.
“I … remember the excitement,” Andaiye says, “and hearing Nina Simone asking (like a chant), ‘Where’s Rap?’”
“Along with constantly asking about Rap,” Adams adds, ”she commented on how she and others were being followed by the FBI, how their phones were being tapped, their friends harassed.”
“It was the first time many of us in the audience heard that … entertainers were being hounded because of the messages they were delivering.”
Although the fact has not yet appeared in published histories of the movement, Al-Amin had fled to the East African nation of Tanzania, where several SNCC members had settled.
But, as he explained to William (Bill) Sutherland, an African American expatriate who had earlier assisted Malcolm X during his 1964 visit, Al-Amin wouldn’t wish his rough-and-tough SNCC “boys” on Tanzania, as Sutherland told this writer. He reentered the U. S. as secretly as he had left it.
In the wee hours of Oct. 16, 1971, a New York City policeman shot an African American man on a rooftop following an alleged robbery of a West Side Manhattan bar. Three black men from St. Louis, Mo., were arrested with the wounded man, who identified himself as Roy Williams.
However, the police and the FBI established that his fingerprints matched those of Hubert Geroid Brown, better known as H. Rap Brown, who had been missing for 17 months. The three defendants were charged with robbing the bar’s patrons and the attempting to murder three policemen, one of whom was wounded. Al-Amin didn’t testify at his trial, but maintained that he was innocent of the charges.
“Truth crushed into earth will rise again,” he said when offered an opportunity to speak at the conclusion of his 10-week trial, paraphrasing a quotation by William Cullen Bryant often used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thomas A. Johnson, the first black New York Times reporter, suggested an alternative to the prosecution’s version of Al-Amin’s motives. An investigation by the Times, Johnson reported on Jan. 23, 1972, revealed that “some community sources believe that” Al-Amin “was involved in a vigilante anti-narcotics campaign during the time that he dropped from public view.”
“One community source,” Johnson continued, “contends that ‘if’ [Al-Amin] was involved in the robbery of the Red Carpet Lounge on West 85th Street…, it was ‘to convince’ certain customers suspected of dealing in heroin and cocaine ‘that they should stop.’”
This coincided with the burgeoning traffic in cocaine, which was beginning to supplant heroine as the drug of choice and was increasingly being promoted by a new breed of black drug kingpins. This scourge was not only decimating African American communities throughout the county, but also sapping the remaining energies of the fracturing black liberation movement.
Al-Amin was found guilty, although the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked” on the attempted murder charge, and sentenced to five to 17 years in prison rather than the maximum of 25 years.
“I’m taking into account,” the famously independent-minded State Supreme Court Justice Arnold G. Fraiman told Al-Amin on May 9, 1973, “that you have done much to help your people. You have devoted much of your life to helping your fellow man.”
(Concluded next week)
Copyright © 2002, 2009
by Paul Lee