Rap Brown's Deadly Return

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When I first met H. Rap Brown, during the long, hot summer of 1967, the chairman of the wildly misnamed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a hotheaded black revolutionary. As a cub reporter for the Washington Post, I covered a speech he delivered in Cambridge, Md., exhorting a crowd of angry young blacks: "If America don't come around, we're gonna burn America down!" His fiery rhetoric notwithstanding, he was less responsible for the arson and sniping that erupted later that night than was the jittery white cop who angered the crowd by firing a shotgun, slightly wounding Rap in the forehead.

When I saw him again five years ago, he seemed to have put the madness of the '60s behind him. He had converted to Islam while serving time in prison for attempted robbery and had changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. In 1981 he set up a mosque in an ethnically mixed section of Atlanta. He was dignified and extremely reserved--until a pack of neighborhood kids bustled in to buy candy at the nearby convenience store he operates. Their giggled response to his gruff teasing made it obvious that they adored him. I thought Al-Amin had finally made peace with the world.

He hadn't. Last week a posse aided by yapping beagles and bloodhounds tracked him down in Lowndes County, Ala., where, 35 years ago, he had helped set up an independent black political organization that chose a black panther as its symbol. (He later became minister of justice for Huey Newton's Black Panther Party, a totally separate organization.) The charge: murder and aggravated assault in connection with the shooting of two sheriff's deputies in Atlanta who had tried to arrest Al-Amin for failing to appear in court to face relatively minor charges. It seemed like something the rabble rouser H. Rap Brown would do, not the gray-bearded cleric, now 56, whom I had watched leading his flock in prayer.

There is something wrong with this picture. Cops in Atlanta say Al-Amin's devout image is a ruse. Federal agents have suspected him of gunrunning since 1994, when two members of his congregation were convicted of illegally shipping nearly 1,000 pistols to a Muslim group in New York City, but they have never obtained enough evidence to charge him. A year later, Al-Amin was accused of shooting a 23-year-old Atlanta man, but the charges were dropped after the victim claimed police had pressured him into falsely naming Al-Amin as the shooter. Such brushes with the law strike Al-Amin and his supporters as harassment. Says his lawyer, J.L. Chestnut: "He's been fighting the system since he was 16 years old, and now the system is trying to kill him."

Is it? A generation ago, Al-Amin made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list by preaching the violent overthrow of the all-white power structure in places like Lowndes County. But by last week, when he was arrested by a deputy who is black--as are the sheriff of Lowndes County, the mayor and police chief of Atlanta and the two deputies he allegedly shot--that old system had been swept away, not by force but through patient protest and voting. How ironic that the heirs of the nonviolent revolution he walked away from now hold his fate in their hands.