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Rabble rouser: The FBI conspiracy against H. Rap Brown

CENTER OF THE STORM: Al-Amin (center, wearing bandage) argues with police on the steps of the federal courthouse at Alexandria, Va., while reporters record the scene, July 26, 1967. A deputy sheriff shot him in the face at Cambridge, Md., two days before. “After that,” wrote James Forman in his SNCC memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, “he found himself in some fourteen courts in fourteen different parts” of the U. S., “facing every kind of charge and legal harassment. … It became clear that the government would go all the way to eliminate Rap Brown from the scene. …”

By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen

On Oct. 28, 2009, Imam Luqman Abdullah, formerly Christopher Thomas, the 53-year-old leader of Masjid Al-Haqq, a mostly African American Muslim congregation on Detroit’s near West Side, was shot and killed by a joint task force led by the Detroit field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Abdullah was reportedly shot at least 18 times after allegedly failing to surrender and shooting a police dog.

With the exception of The Michigan Citizen the alternative and radical press and, surprisingly, Detroit’s Fox 2 News television, the local, national and international news media accepted the FBI’s version of Abdullah’s killing, as well as its characterization of Abdullah as a violent extremist, his masjid as a group engaged in criminal activity and its version of Abdullah as a violent extremist and his masjid as engaged in violent crime. (See Diane Bukowski, “FBI murders Detroit Imam, targets Muslims nationally,” The Michigan Citizen, Nov. 8th-Nov. 14, 2009.)

However, much of the Metro Detroit area Muslim community, which is ethnically, racially and religiously diverse, rose up in an unprecedented show of unity and began coordinating its efforts with a growing number of community and political organizations, including the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice (MECAWI), the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality (DCAPB) and the Green Party of Michigan.

On Nov. 6, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) organized a well-attended town hall meeting at The Muslim Center, 1605 W. Davison, where spokespersons for this new coalition and one of Abdullah’s sons called for an independent investigation into Abdullah’s killing.

They also countered the FBI’s portrayal of Abdullah and his masjid with moving personal testimonies and raised troubling questions about the FBI’s version of events and its two-year-old investigation of Masjid Al-Haqq, suggesting that the latter is part of a national pattern of government repression against U. S. Muslims in a climate of post-9/11 hysteria.

Given the FBI’s historic lack of understanding of African Americans and Muslims, and its documented hostility toward African American Muslims that it considered “extremist,” The Michigan Citizen believes that it is legitimate to ask if the bureau has gone from its obsession with a “Red (Communist) Scare” from the 1920s-’50s to a “Black Scare” from the 1950s-’70s to a “Green (the traditional color of Islam) Scare” today.

Therefore, we are printing a revised, updated version of a two-part series on the FBI conspiracy against Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, known during the 1960s as the fiery Black Power advocate H. Rap Brown, by Michigan Citizen historical features writer Paul Lee, which originally appeared in the April 7th-April 13th and April 14th-April 20th, 2002, issues. Mr. Lee has also added new photos and a link to an online video of Al-Amin.

This series is not only germane as a carefully documented example of how the FBI has responded to black and Islamic radicalism in the past, but also because the bureau has sought to link Abdullah with Al-Amin. In an Oct. 28 news release, the Detroit FBI asserted:

“Abdullah was the leader of part of a group which calls themselves Ummah (‘the brotherhood’), a group of mostly African-American converts to Islam, which seeks to establish a separate Sharia-law governed state within the United States. The Ummah is ruled by Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rapp Brown, who is serving a state sentence … for the murder of two police officers in Georgia.”

In fact, Al-Amin’s ummah, or religious community, advocates no such thing; he has been under a 23-hour lockdown at perhaps the highest-security prison on earth, where he is in no position to “rule” anything or anyone; and the former “H. Rapp [sic] Brown” was convicted of murdering one person, who was a deputy sheriff, not a policeman, for which he continues to maintain his innocence.

However, as this series documents, such carelessness and character assassination have a long history in the FBI — one that is worth bearing in mind as the case against Masjid Al-Haqq develops. — Ed.

* * *

Part I of III

Rap who?

Despite the fact that today’s most popular form of music is known as rap/hip hop, few of its young fans know anything about a 1960s black revolutionary who was known as H. Rap Brown because of his singular ability to articulate the pain, anger and hopes of African Americans, particularly the most oppressed and marginalized.

The writer’s attention was first drawn to this fact by the man, himself, when we spoke at a forum on the African American Muslim and nationalist leader Malcolm X at the University of Michigan in March 1993. Except for his looming, six-foot, five-inch height, he bore little physical or philosophical resemblance to the iconic figure of three decades earlier.

A young questioner stood and asked if he approved of rap music. “Well, you know,” he replied softly, after chuckling to himself, “that was my name — Rap!”

His full given name, Hubert Geroid Brown, had been little known, even by his friends and activist colleagues.

Many who cherished the distinctive images of the firebrand H. Rap Brown — black beret and sunglasses, bushy Afro, droopy moustache, blue denim jacket and jeans and the inevitable white socks and sneakers, with his right fist raised defiantly in the Black Power salute — were saddened by the circumstances that brought him back into the news on March 9, 2002, under yet another name: Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.

Sporting a crimson moustache and beard and wearing wire-frame glasses, a white kufi skullcap, a full-length white jalabiya shirt and, given the circumstances, an oddly serene expression, Al-Amin, now a Muslim imam or cleric, sat in a Fulton County, Ga., courtroom as he was found guilty of killing a sheriff’s deputy and wounding another in a shootout at Atlanta’s historically black West End on March 16, 2000.

Supermax

He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In October 2007, Al-Amin was transferred to the U. S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility at Florence, Colo., better known as “Supermax” or “The Alcatraz of the Rockies,” because, according to Georgia corrections officials, his high-profile status presented “unique issues.”

It is the highest-level federal prison in the U. S., and is considered to be the most secure prison in the world.

Three other notable African American inmates at Supermax, considered political prisoners by their supporters, are Imam Abdullah Malik Ka’bah, formerly Jeff Fort, co-founder of the El Rukn tribe, which began as the Blackstone Rangers Chicago street gang; Larry Hoover, chairman of Growth and Development (GD), formerly the Gangster Disciples, which also started as a Windy City gang; and Sekou Odinga, formerly Nathaniel Burns, a formerly of the underground Black Liberation Army (BLA).

“Unabomber” Theodore (Ted) Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and former senior FBI agent Robert Hanssen, convicted of conducting espionage for the former Soviet Union (Russia), are also housed at Supermax.

Odyssey

Al-Amin’s long odyssey from admired and feared Black Power leader, hunted fugitive, convicted robber, respected Muslim leader, hunted fugitive again and finally convicted murderer — all under the watchful eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — began when he joined the shock troops of the modern civil-rights movement, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), in 1963.

Ironically, the young man called “Rap” was more typically a listener. However, when moved to speak, whether to an individual or before an audience of hundreds or thousands, he had a rare ability to make deep feelings, complex realities and challenging political concepts clear and compelling.

“[I]n terms of public speaking, Rap stands out,” Chicago freelance writer and teacher Kiarri Cheatwood wrote in a May 1975 Black World magazine review of SNCC’s Rap: H. Rap Brown (Flying Dutchman, 1970), a long-playing record album of Al-Amin’s speech at Long Island University on Oct. 22, 1969.

He “does so,” Cheatwood continued, “because he proceeds methodically, without …meaningless rhetorical excesses, flipness, and general foolishness.” By so doing, Al-Amin became one of that era’s preeminent advocates of Black Power, or the belief that black people should determine their own destiny and control their own affairs.

James Forman, SNCC’s former executive secretary, observed in his indispensable 1972 memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account, “His [Al-Amin’s] way of speaking, his whole style, has a grass-roots quality that gave him mass appeal.”

Al-Amin’s conviction and continued claim to be an innocent man victimized by an ongoing governmental conspiracy offer an opportunity to examine the FBI’s “counterintelligence” efforts to “disrupt, frustrate, and discourage” his black liberation activities.

‘A baaaad man’

The May 1966 election of Al-Amin’s friend Kwame Ture, then still known as Stokely Carmichael, as chair of SNCC did not initiate the transformation of that group from a nonviolent, multi-racial organization to an all-black “revolutionary vanguard” movement that advocated “armed struggle.” It reflected the new mood and gave it a national voice.

For several years, many of SNCC’s black field workers had chaffed at the cultural blindness of the white university students who bravely joined them in the dangerous direct-action desegregation and voter-registration campaigns throughout the Deep South.

They also felt frustrated at the political timidity and opportunism of John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations, which coveted new black Democratic voters, but recoiled at supporting the fundamental changes the SNCC workers came to believe were necessary if political and economic justice was finally to be brought to poor and powerless African Americans.

Expressing the new mood of many blacks to gain control of the political, economic and cultural institutions that governed their lives, Ture called for Black Power, setting off a firestorm of controversy that accelerated the philosophical and tactical split between movement groups seeking integration and those desiring some measure of racial autonomy.

Ture’s stormy tenure as SNCC chair lasted only a year. Upon introducing his successor, an unknown, 23-year-old Green County, Ala., field organizer named H. Rap Brown, at an Atlanta, Ga., news conference on May 12, 1967, Ture teased the assembled reporters: “He’ll take care of you all — he’s a baaaad man.”

Long, hot summer

Al-Amin soon proved Carmichael right, not because of his temperament, but in response to a spiraling cycle of “long, hot summer” violence at home and an open-ended, undeclared war in Vietnam, which was sapping the resources of President Johnson’s promised “Great Society.”

In a July 1967 interview with black writer William Gardner Smith for his 1970 book Return to Black America, Al-Amin confessed, “This is a new generation, and it’s bad…. Hell, man, nobody is leading these black people today. … We’re running like hell and we still haven’t caught up.”

Instead, he, Ture, and other SNCC organizers sought to redirect the exploding anger and frustration of urban blacks into uncertain, untested forms of “revolutionary” action.

Predictably, J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful, anti-black director of the FBI, saw their efforts differently, particularly after the president, Congress, local officials and an alarmed citizenry began demanding answers to the unprecedented wave of urban “riots” sweeping the U. S.

The worst uprising occurred at Newark, N. J., from July 12-17, 1967, spreading through 10 of the city’s 23 square miles and claiming at least 23 lives. But this was quickly topped by the worst urban disorder of the decade, when Detroit’s racial powder keg finally erupted a few days later, from July 23-27.

Costing at least 43 lives, the Detroit “rebellion,” as young blacks defiantly called it, was only quelled by the intervention of National Guardsmen and federal troops, creating the surreal contrast on evening news broadcasts of tanks rolling down smoldering Detroit streets as U. S. forces fought in South Vietnam.

Scapegoat

On July 24, the day after the Detroit eruption, the political establishment found a convenient scapegoat for the carnage after fires were set following a typically incendiary speech by Al-Amin at Cambridge, Md.

While touring the damaged area the next day, Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew ignored the history of the city’s explosive race relations and instead focused on Al-Amin. “I hope they pick him up soon, put him away and throw away the key,” Agnew declared — a remark that catapulted him into national prominence.

After African Americans at Baltimore exploded in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Agnew scolded them for not denouncing Al-Amin and Ture as “apostles of anarchy.” Later that year, he was elected Richard Nixon’s vice president.

In Washington, D. C., Hoover promptly widened his vendetta against the hated Ture to include Al-Amin, casting them as the pied pipers of urban strife.

In a report to Attorney General Ramsey Clark on July 27, Hoover blamed the spreading violence on the “exhortations of ‘Black Power’ advocates Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown,” which, he claimed, sparked “volatile situations … into violent outbreaks.”

In a phone conversation with President Lyndon B. Johnson that same day, it was clear that there was no need to persuade him to Hoover’s view. As Hoover, who early recognized the power of keeping complete records, memorialized Johnson’s opinion: “The President … stated he noticed this Rap [Brown] outfit [sic] said he was going to get a gun and shoot Lady Bird,” the president’s wife.

The FBI director played into the president’s fears that he “was besieged in hostile territory,” according to Richard Gid Powers in his 1987 study, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. This, no doubt, strengthened Hoover’s hand in his efforts.

The following day, Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) to investigate the origins of the “riots” and make recommendations to prevent their repetition.

On Aug. 1, Hoover testified before the new body. Typically, he glossed over the social conditions that gave rise the disorders and instead pointed to the “catalytic effect of extremists,” singling out the “vicious rhetoric” of Ture, Al-Amin and, for good measure, his old nemesis, Dr. King. He damned them as “vociferous firebrands who are very militant in nature and who at times incite great numbers to activity.”

When asked his opinion about proposed federal “anti-riot” legislation, Hoover assumed the role of social physician: “…any law which allowed law enforcement the opportunity to arrest militant and vicious rabble-rousers like Carmichael and Brown would be healthy to have on the books.”

Congress agreed. After the Cambridge incident, it bestowed upon Al-Amin the dubious honor of quickly passing a law bearing his name, the “H. Rap Brown law,” making it a federal offense to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot. (It was later struck down in the courts.)

Target

Away from the glare of the television spotlights, Hoover stepped up his secret efforts to undermine black radicalism, which he broadly defined to include any perceived threat to the status quo.

By the end of the month, on Aug. 25, the bureau established a new “Counterintelligence Program,” or COINTELPRO, against “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups,” which was designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” black nationalist groups. (The first COINTELPRO was established in 1956 against the Communist Party of the United States of American [CPUSA].)

The program’s targets lumped in Dr. King’s nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the radical SNCC and Elijah Muhammad’s conservative, quasi-Islamic, black-centered Nation of Islam (NOI).

“Intensified attention under this program should be afforded to the activities of such groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee…,” the initiating memo directed. “Particular emphasis should be given to extremists who direct the activities and policies of revolutionary and militant groups such as Stokely Carmichael, H. ‘Rap’ Brown” and others.

On March 4, 1968, the program was expanded from 23 to 41 FBI field offices. One of its goals was to “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” The memo nodded to the martyred Malcolm X as a potential “messiah,” had he lived, and noted that Ture “has the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way.”

SNCC again led the list of targeted organizations, and FBI offices handling the cases of its organizers, including “H. Rap Brown of SNCC,” were tasked to “be alert for counterintelligence suggestions.”

Panthers

Ironically, another radical black group was not included — the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), which, as its name suggested, both advocated and practiced armed self-protection, including against police officers, along with its then-modest community programs.

Co-founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale at Oakland, Calif., in October 1966, the BPP had been inspired by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an independent, mostly black rural Alabama political party, which Kwame Ture and other SNCC organizers helped organize in 1965.

However, the LCFO was better known as the Black Panther Party, whose name and symbol of a leaping panther were adopted by Newton’s and Seale’s group.

The FBI’s omission of the Oakland BPP is curious because, only two weeks before it expanded its COINTELPRO against black nationalists, Al-Amin had been “drafted” as the BPP’s “minister of justice,” former SNCC chair Ture as its “honorary prime minister” and former SNCC executive secretary James Forman as its “minister of foreign affairs” at a huge rally at the Oakland Coliseum.

The Feb. 17 rally was part of a nationwide campaign to “Free Huey” Newton, in jail on a charge of murdering a policeman, wounding another and kidnapping a bystander.

BPP minister of information Eldridge Cleaver had delighted the audience but surprised SNCC by announcing the appointments as part of a “merger” of the two organizations — which he did without prior authorization of SNCC’s central committee, or even the three draftees. Cleaver’s action planted seeds of distrust that would grow along the lines of divergent ideologies and personalities, but also be exacerbated by the now-alert FBI.

By September 1968, Hoover would more than compensate for his oversight in neglecting to target the Oakland BPP, whose shaky alliance with SNCC had dissolved in acrimony the previous month. The FBI director labeled the BPP “The greatest threat to the internal security of the Country.”

Ridiculing Rap

The following month, the “Racial Matters Squad” (Section 43) of the FBI’s New York field division made its first counterintelligence recommendations regarding Al-Amin, who maintained an office at Harlem.

Special Agent John J. Dunleavy, who had previously investigated the moribund, post-Malcolm X Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), advised, “STOKELY CARMICHAEL and H. RAP BROWN … should of course be included on the Rabble Rouser list.”

The Rabble Rouser Index, soon renamed the Agitator Index, listed “racial agitators and individuals who have demonstrated a propensity for fomenting racial discord,” according to an Aug. 3, 1967, FBI headquarters memo. Originally compiled in response to a Kerner Commission request for a tally of known agitators, the index became a convenient list of primary targets for COINTELPRO dirty tricks.

“In order to effectively neutralize these groups,” Dunleavy suggested, “it appears that current membership must be disenchanted and that future membership must be dissuaded.” In his view, membership in “nationalist and hate groups” was divided between “the intelligentsia and the unintelligent.” Therefore, different methods of ridiculing the group’s leaders were required.

“For the first who spend endless hours discussing ways and means to effect their ‘revolution,’” Dunleavy offered, “a subtle middle class type publication can be used. For the latter a comic book type publication can be utilized.”

Implicitly conceding Al-Amin’s appeal to black youth, Dunleavy noted that, for the benighted, “plain cartoons and simple ghetto language should be the rule in the publication aimed at the follower and the potential member in his early teens.” He recommended the title Culla Me H. Rap Brown, a take-off on the popular 1964 Color Us Cullud coloring book, produced by Harlem artist and black nationalist Elombe Brath.

The book, Dunleavy continued, “could contain various data regarding BROWN[’]S early life, his speaking fees, bank account and other facets of his life that show him to be other than a sincere black nationalist.” However, he emphasized, “Factual data is not necessary: the only goal is effect.”

As an example, he suggested an accusation that he knew was untrue — that Al-Amin was “a coward among the ‘revolutionary’ groups. …” This could be portrayed by “a series of scenes showing BROWN alighting from an airplane, speaking to a group, then sneaking abroad a plane. …”

The enterprising agent even composed a “jingle” to accompany the caricatures:

Ole Rap Brown

Came to town

With his shades

Hanging down

He hollored [sic] fight

Take what’s right

Then he flew, man

In the night

(Hoover, himself, might have inspired this fabrication. In his Kerner Commission testimony, he referred to “rabble-rousers who initiate action and then disappear,” citing Dr. King, Al-Amin and Ture, among others.)

Dunleavy concluded: “The appeal to children, prospective members of such groups, would be the greatest perhaps. If the youth of the ghetto rejects black nationalism as ludicrous then the neutralization of such attitudes and doctrines can more readily be effected.”

Available documentation does not indicate whether or not FBI headquarters approved this proposal. However, it is important to note that it was made on April 4, 1968 — the day that Dr. King was assassinated at Memphis, Tenn. There is no evidence that Dr. King’s murder in any way slowed the black nationalist counterintelligence program against Al-Amin, or the movement. In fact, the FBI stepped it up.

Copyright © 2002, 2009
by Paul Lee

 

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