Al-Amin: A life layered with irony
by Jim Auchmutey, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 18 Mar 2001
Thirty-five years and two names ago, the man who would become famous as H. Rap Brown had a very different kind of brush with police.
Brown was working with an anti-poverty program in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood where there had been clashes between police and residents. Considering his later notoriety as a violence-preaching Black Panther, Brown's response to the problem was calm and common-sensical: He wanted to talk to the white police captain in charge about cultural sensitivity in patrolling a black area.
They spoke for an hour. The captain was so impressed with the young man that he suggested Brown might want to consider a future in law enforcement and take the police exam.
"It was such a wonderful moment. I really felt there could be progress," one of Brown's co-workers, Charles Puttkammer, who was at the meeting, recalled.
Today, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin --- Brown's name for the past quarter-century --- is wanted in the killing of a Fulton County sheriff's deputy and the wounding of another in Atlanta. The deputies were attempting to serve a warrant charging him, among other things, with impersonating a police officer.
They are the latest ironies in a life layered with them.
As Hubert Gerold Brown, an angry son of the segregated South, he grew up to embody the black power movement of the '60s. He wore dark sunglasses and a black beret and became infamous for saying things like, "Violence is as American as cherry pie." Eventually, he was indicted for allegedly inciting a riot and convicted of taking part in a shootout with New York City police.
As Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, he came out of prison with a new religion, a new name and a new home on a tree-shaded street near the Atlanta University Center. He opened a small grocery store that smelled of incense and founded a mosque that helped clean up a crime-plagued neighborhood. At 56, his musk-oiled beard turning gray, he was a familiar figure on West End Place, where he was still known to unfold his 6-foot-5 frame in basketball games with neighborhood kids.
After the shootings Thursday, his neighbors had trouble reconciling the conflicting images.
"I never saw him angry," said 73-year-old Hattie Stegall, who lives nearby. "When someone would die in my family, he would come by and offer his hand. And when the Muslim children would fight my grandchildren, he would make them come to me and apologize."
Stegall's daughter, Susie Sykes, said she has known Al-Amin for 20 years. She said they talked about religion or health but never about his past. For years, she said, "A lot of us didn't know he was H. Rap Brown."
Hubert Brown --- the "Rap" nickname came during the '60s --- was born during World War II to a petroleum worker and his wife in Baton Rouge, La. In his 1969 autobiography, "Die Nigger Die!" Brown wrote that he had developed a sense of outrage over racial injustice even as a child. He said he was always arguing with teachers about prejudice in the works of white writers.
Brown enrolled at Southern University in 1960 and majored in sociology. He made good grades and had no record of troublemaking, but he left his hometown school before graduating.
He moved to Washington and enlisted in the War on Poverty, working for a neighborhood development center called the United Planning Organization. Charles Puttkammer, the former co-worker in that program, remembers him as an energetic advocate for the poor, even when he had needs of his own. "He asked me to co-sign on a loan for a car. . . . It was a used Pontiac."
But Brown soon soured on the federal poverty program. He later wrote that "it was designed to take those people whom the government considered threatening and buy them off."
In 1966, Brown jumped into the front lines of the civil rights movement as a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Greene County, Ala. SNCC, which had been founded during the sit-in movement of the early '60s, was in turmoil. Militants like Stokely Carmichael were pushing out many of the group's more conciliatory founders --- Julian Bond and John Lewis among them.
"He didn't have the most developed, thought-out ideas in the world, but like Stokely, he knew how to work a crowd," Lewis said of Brown in his memoir, "Walking With the Wind."
His opportunity to show those skills came in 1967, when the controversial Carmichael was ousted as SNCC chairman and the post was given to Brown, who was thought to be more moderate. But Carmichael knew that his successor was at least as militant as he was. "You'll be happy to have me back when you hear from him," he said. "He's a bad man."
Brown quickly made a name for himself. At a July 1967 rally in Cambridge, Md., he exhorted a crowd of 400 to get some guns and meet fire with fire. "Black folks built America, and if America don't come around, we're going to burn America down," he was quoted as saying.
After the rally, shooting broke out. Brown was wounded when a single shotgun pellet struck his forehead. Rioting followed, and by the next morning two blocks of the town lay in ashes --- including a school that Brown had said ought to be burned.
JoAnne Bayneum, chief judge of the Fulton County Magistrate's Court, was living in Cambridge at the time. Her father's business was burned down with many others in the black community. "I cannot believe that anyone who has a sense of history about what happened during the '60s would romanticize these people, especially Rap Brown," she said. "These were dangerous people."
Cambridge was just the beginning of Brown's serious problems with the law.
Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew said he ought to be locked up for instigating arson --- and he was, after a fashion. Brown was accused of inciting a riot, and with the charge pending, was arrested while attempting to board a plane in Washington with an M-1 rifle. A federal judge gave him the maximum sentence of five years in 1968, the same year he was named a minister of justice for the Black Panthers.
While the sentence for the arms conviction was on appeal, and as Maryland was preparing to try him for the Cambridge riot, Brown went into hiding in 1970. The FBI added him to its "Most Wanted" list. He reappeared 17 months later in a blaze of gunfire.
Police in New York City spotted him near the scene of a saloon holdup and shootout. Officers shot Brown and arrested him, charging him with armed robbery and attempted murder.
While he was jailed and awaiting trial, Brown converted to Islam. His new name came from a fellow inmate; Al-Amin, he explained, means "trustworthy."
After his parole from a New York prison in 1976, Al-Amin made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, and then settled in West End to found the Community Mosque of Atlanta. The 100-member congregation is part of the National Community, a coalition of 30 mosques that traces its roots to the orthodox Dar al-Islam Movement, founded in Brooklyn during the early '60s. Like a majority of American Muslims, Al-Amin belongs to mainstream Islam, not the Nation of Islam and its high-profile leader, Louis Farrakhan.
It's not surprising that Islam would have appealed to Al-Amin.
"Muslims use Islam as a way of lifting themselves out of oppression," said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of Africana studies at Vassar College, who has interviewed Al-Amin at length. "Islam is seen as a religion of resistance to oppression. Islam also has some appeal to the martial side, of men at least. It does not emphasize turning the other cheek as Christianity does. It believes in self-defense, an eye for an eye."
In an interview with the Journal-Constitution not long after he arrived in Atlanta, Al-Amin made his new faith sound like an antidote to all the things he had stood for in the popular imagination during the '60s. "Islam enables you, and it teaches you not to be controlled or to do things out of anger," he said.
For the most part, Al-Amin seems to have followed the controlled life he talked about. He has married and raised two children with his wife, Karina Al-Amin, an attorney with an office in Midtown. He has started neighborhood patrols, organized summermes for Muslim youth, converted drug users to Islam and helped them beat addiction.
People meeting him for the first time were struck with his unexpectedly gentle manner. When political columnist George Will visited him in 1985, he found him "enveloped in a strange serenity."
In 1995, Al-Amin was charged with aggravated assault after a man in the neighborhood claimed he had shot him. The man later recanted and said he was pressured by authorities to identify Al-Amin as the shooter.
Michael Hauptman, Al-Amin's attorney in that case, wonders if some version of the same story isn't unfolding again.
"Given all that has gone on in his life," he said, "he would have to be an idiot to believe that he was not targeted by the police."
Those who have studied the man in his different incarnations --- as Hubert Brown, H. Rap Brown and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin --- had expected not to hear much about him again.
"He was sort of a person who was caught up in much larger forces," said Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University historian and author of "In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s." "He created enough of a stir to be in the news for a while, but then he sort of fell from sight."
Until last week.
© 2001 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.