Imam Jamil Al-Amin, formerly civil rights activist H.Rap Brown, was wrongfully imprisoned in 2002 for crimes he didn’t commit: the shooting death of a Georgia sheriff’s deputy and the wounding of another officer. Otis Jackson, a self-described gang leader, confessed to the crime, but his confession wasn’t allowed in the Imam’s trial. More recently Jackson confessed again, this time on video.
The Imam Jamil Action Network (IJAN) is helping Change.org circulate a petition calling for the Imam’s retrial and exoneration. It’s at https://www.change.org/freeimamjamil. Meanwhile, one of many activists inspired by the former H. Rap Brown is Felipe Luciano, a member of The Last Poets, a founder of the Young Lord’s Party, and the first Puerto Rican news anchor on New York City’s WNBC-TV. In the following essay, Luciano recalls H. Rap Brown in his youth, and describes the qualities that made him an effective organizer.
It was 1968 and America was on fire. King was shot dead in Memphis, Robert Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles, The Tet Offensive proved that America controlled the air over Viet-Nam but North Vietnam controlled the ground, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago turned into a bloody police riot. Black America simply exploded and in cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., poor people, working class people, church people and hustlers took to the street, burning white businesses and hurling rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen.
It was in that context of militancy and resistance that I met Rap Brown. I was teaching a workshop on Black Power in the loft headquarters of the Last Poets on 125th Street in Harlem when one fall evening this very tall, light-skinned, afroed man with sunglasses and a denim jacket casually walked in and plunked himself in a chair.
I saw him, and while I recognized his face and fame, I was in the throes of explaining the German philosopher Nietzsche, who called “liberals” cowards and declared that truth is the only virtue.
When I asked for questions or statements, Rap raised his hand and gave a galvanizing analysis of the essay and how it related to the situation of the Black man in America, how white folks diffused the righteous indignation of Blacks with brain-washing, cooptation, jail and murder.
“How you gonna trust a system that lynched your daddy and raped your momma?” Rap shouted, “America has you chumps believing that one day y’all be free and equal if you just lie down and stay quiet.”
The attendees started rocking back and forth and shouting,
“Speak on it, brother. Tell the truth, tell it like it is.”
I had never before seen the attendees jump up and shout like they were in church. My lectures were slightly emotional, but I emphasized critical analysis and reading. Rap’s genius is that he mixed scholarship with culture and culture with music. In the midst of quoting Malcolm he would recite a Curtis Mayfield song like “Keep on Pushin’” a man he knew well. And he loved Jerry Butler, a soul singer who has been forgotten for some time but whose popular hit “Only the Strong Survive” lived in our hearts. Rap called him the “Ice-Man” and explained how Black song reflects the angst of a people. H. Rap Brown quoted passages from books on Black history, but he did it in a riveting, Southern style with humor.
“Equality? You serious or delirious? The moment Black folks develop real wealth, white folks will change the currency to rocks!” he proclaimed.
The students started stomping the floor and howling with laughter. For weeks I had lectured on the contradictions in American society and Rap broke it down with one hilarious sentence. He didn’t stop there and for 60 minutes, as I prodded him with questions, this quiet man transformed himself from activist to messenger.
The students, activists and professionals, who attended class that evening were mesmerized as Rap criticized the “in the middle” Negros who refused to confront America for fear of losing their lives or their well-paying positions.
Rap kept it real: “In the end, sucker, you’ll lose both!”
His clarity, his passion, his truth transformed me that evening and I vowed to follow him with all my mind and soul.
In the following months I was at his side, whether as a Young Lord or a Last Poet. I noticed his tenderness with those who didn’t understand the need for all people of color to come together.
Rap Brown became a regular attendee at my Black Power classes, listening and offering nuggets of wisdom.
One day, a particularly irritating Brown-skinned Puerto Rican kept on interrupting with his declaration that Puerto Ricans were not Black. The air in the loft was getting thick. As I was explaining the African diaspora to him, in which most slaves ended up in South America and the Caribbean, Rap stood up, waited for a pause and then started to carefully shred the argument of separation of Black and Brown culture.
Those who were in the back of the room quickly ran to the front and seated themselves; they knew this was going to be a “Rap” moment.
“You know, I was told about a Puerto Rican soldier down South who, after finishing his tour of duty, waited for a bus to take him North. He was all spit and polish. When the bus rolled into the dusty depot, he proudly gave the driver his ticket. But before he could take a step, this crusty cracker told him curtly, ‘Get to the back of the bus.’
“The Puerto Rican soldier stepped back in shock and replied, ‘I’m not Black, I’m Puerto Rican.’
“The driver shot back, ‘I don’t care what kind of nigger you are, get to the back of the bus.’”
The audience howled in laughter, slapping five and dabbing the tears from their eyes.
Even the Puerto Rican had to laugh. There were no more interruptions that day.
Rap Brown loved coming to East Harlem. In El Barrio he was not known as an icon, he was simply “ese negro alto con los chistes,” that tall Black man with the jokes. They loved his easygoing ways and his honesty. Even when the FBI was chasing all over the country looking for him, Rap Brown was in our hood, a foot taller than anyone else, walking the streets with me, safe and secure.
He was never lewd with women, never arrogant or condescending with men. Assuming he could speak Spanish, the elders would chatter at him in rapid fire Spanish and he’d just nod slowly, say “OK” and ask me to translate as we walked away.
Even the local police, knowing he was a fugitive, left him alone in East Harlem. They felt the love. Why start a riot by trying to arrest him? And anyway, even they liked this Lone Ranger who told the truth to America.
His conversion to Islam was not a surprise to those who love him. His disaffection with Christianity and its hypocrisy was well known. The clean, precise, orderly commands of the Quran attracted him and he did what he did with everything he wanted to learn, read extensively, studied the Quran and memorized long passages in Arabic. I think he knew that Islam was going to be the wave of the future.
And as he waits in prison, hoping for a new trial for allegedly murdering an Atlanta police officer in 2000, a murder to which another man confessed and had the evidence suppressed, Imam Jamil al Amin waits for us to stand up and be counted, to protest his illegal confinement and to remember his sacrifices of blood and the bullet holes in his body as he fought to be free, to make us free.
Let us not forget him, ever. And as he always said, “We will win without a doubt.” I believe him. I believe in him. Peace.