Quantcast

Nation Topics - Civil Rights Movement | The Nation

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Civil Rights Movement

Articles

News and Features

Fifty years ago, African-Americans and
fellow progressives hailed Brown v. Board of Education as a
conclusive turning point in the struggle for racial equality.

After bloody battles for desegregation, blacks in Memphis are still behind.

How four federal judges brought the rule of reason to the South.

Only the joy of capitalist expectation could move a pre-Reagan-born
American to utter the line "civil rights is dead," let alone write a
book devoted to that proposition.

The summer before 14-year-old Trent Lott entered all-white Pascagoula
High School in Mississippi, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named
Emmett Till convinced his mother to let him go down

As any casual observer of mega-bookstore shelves knows, the history of the modern civil rights movement is a well-studied field.

Die Nigger Die!, the autobiographical political memoir by H. Rap Brown, is a vital American historical document--historical almost in the sense of a message found in a time capsule, a missive from another age. But it remains of considerable interest for what it tells us about social and political attitudes, behaviors and expectations of a time--so my students believe--long past. The time, in this case, being a discrete, relatively short period of domestic upheaval in this country during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of "revolutionary" black uprising in Northern ghettos following hard on the heels of the Southern, nonviolent, direct-action movement engineered by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), a movement usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr. Rap's book has an added dimension of sociological interest, being a voice from the frontlines, the personal and political testimony of a radically militant chairman of SNCC who came to symbolize the defiance of a generation of angry and militant black youth. A third, perhaps less compelling, area of interest is the personal: what the voice and language reveal about the character and personality, the sensibility, if you will, of the speaker. Who is this man, of whom McGeorge Bundy reportedly commented at the founding gathering of the National Urban Coalition, "Wouldn't you, wouldn't all of us, sleep much better tonight if we knew that H. Rap Brown...was somewhere quietly running his own little drugstore?"

Well, for one thing, the author, H. Rap Brown, is no longer among us. Nor has he really been since 1971, when, as a young man in his late twenties, he made his shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith). During a period of incarceration by the State of New York, the black activist known to the media as H. Rap Brown converted to orthodox Islam and emerged as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Sunni Muslim. Brown went in and Al-Amin emerged. This change was by no means cosmetic or strategic.

By all accounts and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence over years, this was a genuine religious conversion, a classically "profound transformation of self." Al-Amin embarked on a life of rigorous study and spiritual and moral inquiry with the same single-minded intensity and uncompromising commitment Rap had brought to militant social struggle.

It is important to mention this because, as we know, not all conversions--religious or ideological--are equal. This was a time particularly famous for sudden, public and apparently infinitely reversible self-reinventions, two of the more dramatic being Jerry Rubin's conversion from the stridently countercultural Youth International Party leadership to Wall Street broker (from yippie to yuppie) and Eldridge Cleaver's from Black Panther Party revolutionary to born-again Christian.

Al-Amin's embrace of Islam, however, proved neither facile nor expedient, as his emergence as a bookish Muslim cleric and his years of work in faith-based social improvement have demonstrated. The fiery and impetuous young rebel who speaks out of the pages of Die Nigger Die! has long since evolved into an austere religious scholar, disciplined by faith and projecting the aura of a spiritually disposed ascetic.

After thirty years, Al-Amin has become, in many important ways, a vastly different person from the author of this book. A respected imam, he now sees--and for some time has seen--the world, his own role therein and the eventual liberation of his people in quite different terms: those of faith, self-discipline and spiritual development. This vision is reflected in both his demeanor and his language. Consequently he has, at this time, serious reservations about the appropriateness of reissuing a book of youthful struggle. It is not that he repudiates any aspect of the book--not the tone, the defiant struggle out of which it came or even the youthful persona of that text.

While he considers some of the language of the early work "unseemly," his reservation is more that he considers his later work, Revolution by the Book, far more relevant to his current concerns and the work of thirty years, as well as being more indicative of his present personal and professional style. No two books could be more different in style and subject, but what they share, apart from their common paternity, is that both are earnestly addressed to the same audience and purpose: the re-education of the African-American grassroots.

Revolution by the Book is not, as might be inferred from a casual glance at the cover, a handbook on guerrilla war. The revolution of the title refers very specifically to jihad in its classical Islamic meaning of the daily, internal struggle for self-mastery and moral discipline. The book begins with a collection of sermons, each explicating one of the foundations of Islam--shahadah (declaration of faith), tauheed (the Oneness and uniqueness of God), salaat (prayer and worship), zakaat (the redemptive value of charity) and saum (purification by fasting and abstinence)--and the expression of them in the hajj, or prescribed pilgrimage.

Liberally illustrated with quotations from the Koran, the Sunnah and other secondary Islamic texts, Al-Amin's tone is learned and reverent, exhortatory and precise. It is an eloquent articulation of the fundamental principles, values and practice of orthodox Islam, affecting every aspect of life, personal and social. The revolution it envisions is a moral one, which begins with the individual, stressing awareness of God and self through piety, study and self-discipline, and moves through family and out into the larger society.

On family:

The first responsibility of the Muslim is as teacher. That is his job, to teach. His first school, his first classroom is within the household. His first student is himself. He masters himself and then he begins to convey the knowledge that he has acquired to the family. The people who are closest to him.

On struggle:

To be successful in struggle requires remembrance of the Creator and the doing of good deeds. This is important because successful struggle demands that there be a kind of social consciousness. There has to be a social commitment, a social consciousness that joins men together. On the basis of their coming together, they do not transgress against themselves and they do not transgress against others.

On society and revolution:

When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us. But we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the first step in turning this thing around: turn your self around.

There is a directness and, if you will, a sincerity to this language, a sincerity that those who know the imam say has for thirty years been evident in his life and example. These qualities are said to have earned him a fierce loyalty and affection from the Muslim congregation to which he ministers in a working-class suburb of Atlanta, respect in the surrounding Christian neighborhood and a wider regard in the national Muslim-American community. This side of Al-Amin's vocational persona is one I had not been privileged to observe until 1998, at a farewell tribute to our brother Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), who was stricken with terminal cancer and had been about to return to his home in Africa, there to die. Perhaps 2,000 people gathered in the banquet room of a Washington hotel: family, friends, admirers and supporters of Carmichael's, mostly movement faithful, veterans of the "heroic days."

It would have been a remarkable gathering in any place and any decade, though it could probably not have happened in the 1960s, when doctrinal and ideological disagreement had loomed so urgent and divisive. Even recently, perhaps only respect for Carmichael could have assembled such a gathering. Black nationalists next to Southern Baptists; pan-Africanists, native Africans, a few Sunni Muslims, and NAACP integrationists next to Nation of Islam separatists; former Black Panthers next to former Students for a Democratic Society activists; progressive intellectuals--writers and editors--socialists, Marxists, liberals, black and white, next to Black Arts Movement cultural nationalists; and John Lewis, the assistant minority whip of the House, cheek by jowl with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the ubiquitous leader of the Nation of Islam. It was a fitting tribute to the extraordinary range and reach of Carmichael/Ture's political and personal charisma and the affection he commanded across lines of ideology and identity.

Prominent at the speakers' table were the former chairmen of SNCC (Marion Barry, Chuck McDew, John Lewis, Jamil, and Phil Hutchens). The talk from the platform was, as might be expected, nostalgic, affectionate, political.

The only real departure, and my only surprise, came when Imam Al-Amin spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful, Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist. Liberally adorned with Koranic quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely reasoned explication of the categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and complexities of struggle as expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years earlier. In any terms--culturally speaking--it was scholarly. I found it startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely appropriate.

Its traditional opening in the resonant cadences of classic Arabic poetry seemed to me and others a voice and sensibility out of a different culture and another time. Its text, taken from Sura 42, verse 41 of the Holy Koran--"All those who fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall surely punish the oppressor"--seemed appropriate as a personal credo for both the speaker and the life of struggle being recognized.

As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister Farrakhan's face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression.)

I'd known the youthful Rap at Howard University as the younger brother of my friend Ed and, of course, later with SNCC in Mississippi and Alabama, before he erupted in the nation's headlines as the black militant from hell, the Negro America loved to hate. I remembered a laconic, rangy (six-foot-five), hawk-faced youth, mostly silent, a preternaturally watchful, almost brooding presence. Said to be an extraordinary athlete, he looked the part. "Yeah, the boy can play him some ball, bro. Everything from point guard to power forward and some quarterback too," his brother told me. "An' there ain't no dawg in mah boy either. He a competitor from his heart. No quit in him."

Given the times, it was natural that the movement would draw him away from the courts and any possibility of athletic scholarships. He listened to our endless debates, read voraciously, joined our demonstrations and volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.

In 1965 he was back in DC, where he became chairman of NAG (Nonviolent Action Group), the local SNCC affiliate. This led to the infamous White House confrontation with President Lyndon Johnson. I believe it was a Saturday morning a week following the vicious police riot known as "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I was alone in the SNCC office when the telephone rang from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Responding to international outrage over the atrocity in Alabama, President Johnson had suddenly agreed to a meeting with the national civil rights leadership. However, the meeting was that afternoon, and the leadership was scattered all over the country. The Washington representatives would have to stand in. Would I be representing SNCC? Hell, no, I most certainly would not. Just then in strolls Rap, attired, as I recall, for athletic endeavor.

"Hey, aren't you the chairman of NAG? Feel like going to the White House this afternoon?" Rap considered it for several moments.

"Well," he drawled, "why not? I ain't really doing much this afternoon."

Later, when he gave his report, I remember his indignation and amazement at the fawning subservience toward the President displayed by a delegation ostensibly there to represent the urgency of our people's struggle, courtiers so effusively grateful for the privilege merely of being there and so anxious to preserve their access that none dared be forthright with the monarch. So it had fallen to him to raise the questions of presidential responsibility for federal inaction in protecting the rights of black citizens that the group was there to represent. He described the delegation's shuffling during the meeting and their not-very-subtle distancing of themselves from his intemperance, in some cases even going so far as to apologize for him. Yet once outside they effusively praised his courage for saying the things that "really needed to be said." Then, within the week, an insidious column in the Washington Post (by Evans and Novak) described how 'deeply embarrassed responsible civil rights leaders' were professing to be at the 'disrespect' shown the President by the young student.

Rap told me that LBJ had entered the meeting expressing his great displeasure at all-night demonstrations outside the White House, which were so noisy that "his little girls" had been unable to sleep. The courtiers each in their turn had expressed distress and apologies for this inconvenience to the presidential family. Rap, when his turn came, said that he too was real sad that for one night the presidential daughters' repose had been disturbed, but black people in the South had been unable to sleep in peace and security for a hundred years. What did the President plan to do about that? He had thought that this was what they were meeting to discuss. Which apparently so upset the President that the courtiers felt a need to run to the press later to put their disapproval on the public record. It must have been a generational thing.

When, in 1967 at the age of 23, Rap succeeded Carmichael as SNCC chairman, it was at a tense and desperate moment in the country. SNCC's call for Black Power, coupled with its stand against the Vietnam War, had isolated the organization and left it exposed. Deep fissures had appeared in the civil rights "coalition." The long-simmering anger of alienated black youth at racism and economic injustice in the ghettos was erupting into violent and destructive urban insurrections. In every case these "riots" were triggered by police brutality or misconduct, most usually the killing or brutalizing of an unarmed black man.

The black insurrections traumatized white America, which was further divided, usually along generational and class lines, by the Vietnam War. Suddenly, middle-class white youth--the ostensible beneficiaries of the system--were, to an unprecedented degree, also alienated from their government. The New Left, a generation of white student activists, was becoming increasingly strident in its denunciation of the American establishment and adopting an increasingly anticapitalist and anti-imperialist "revolutionary" rhetoric.

About this time, the Black Panther Party made its appearance in Oakland. A "revolutionary" organization of urban black youth, they had great style. A variation on gang colors, their black leather jackets, black berets and blue shirts--with firearms either visible or implied--were an expression of ghetto youth culture. Appearing as if on cue out of America's Third World, the Panthers were the New Left's homegrown surrogates for the Vietcong. Black, virile, menacing, hip guerrillas, the Panthers were--depending on one's orientation--the incarnation of white America's most primal fantasy or its worse nightmare: angry Negroes with guns.

Their leadership, with a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle, permitted the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary vanguard, with predictable results. Their members paid a terrible price: Some were killed and many are still in jail, often on very dubious charges.

All of which, in the media's dependably sensationalist presentation, contributed mightily to a pervasive mood of racial tension and impending doom across the nation. Wars (abroad) and rumors of (race) war at home--mere anarchy is loosed, the center cannot hold? Something like that.

Well, not by a long shot, pilgrim. The response of J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation, a "hard-hitting" national counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), was of surpassing ruthlessness in its contempt for law and the civil rights of citizens. COINTELPRO cast a wide net covering the peace movement, the New Left, student activists, black militants ("black nationalist hate groups") and pacifist clergy, including even the very churchly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's specific instructions were to use all necessary means to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize...black nationalist hate type organizations [sic], their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters." Programs were designed to "convince them," Hoover instructed his agents, "that to be a black revolutionary is to be a dead revolutionary."

The bureau, taking him at his word, came up with a repertoire of dirty tricks--authorized by the director and usually illegal--ranging from character assassination, disinformation, false arrest on bogus charges, manufactured evidence, perjured testimony and cynical frame-ups to physical assassination by either uniformed officers or hired agents. All this has been documented by Congressional investigation, but none of the perpetrators--the so-called rogue agents--in the bureau have ever served a day of jail time.

This being the context in which H. Rap Brown undertook the SNCC chairmanship, it is therefore not surprising that his term of office, a succession of indictments and arrests, was spent mostly in court, out on bond or in jail. Some of this is recounted in Die Nigger Die!: It began in July 1967 after an appearance in Cambridge, Maryland, where he had given an "incendiary" and--in the presence of the media--politically ill-advised speech in which he urged black people to arm themselves, to be "ready to die" and to meet violence with violence. "This town is ready to explode.... if you don't have guns, don't be here.... you have to be prepared to die." This proved rather quickly prophetic: Immediately after the speech he and two companions were fired on from an ambush, and the community exploded.

After I spoke people were just milling around. A young lady who lived up towards Race Street where a bunch of white policemen were gathered asked for an escort home because she was afraid to walk by herself. Myself and two other people were walking her home and some dudes opened fire on us with shotguns from some bushes. We found out later they [the shooters] were black policemen. They were shooting at us a long time. I was hit, I dove to the ground, rolled into a ditch and made my way into someone's yard.

      After the shooting there was a lot of commotion. People went into the street and just started tearing everything up. A few hours later they burned the school again. Two weeks earlier people had burned the black elementary school because it had been a rat infested, roach infested place. People were paying taxes and their children were forced to go to school in those conditions. It is these conditions which cause riots. Not anybody's rhetoric.

Shortly after this incident, Brown was charged by the State of Maryland with incitement to riot, beginning a succession of charges and protracted legal maneuvering drawn out over a two-year period.

I can remember following the process as it unfolded in almost Kafkaesque absurdity in the press. It seemed like every few months Brown would be hauled into court in a new jurisdiction on a different charge and held under an oppressively large bond. His attorney--the late William Kunstler--would struggle mightily to win a reduction. Rap would eventually come out and in a matter of days be reported somewhere else making even more "incendiary" utterances and be back in custody, there to begin the dismal cycle all over again. At least that's how it seemed to me. I can remember saying, "I guess you're right. Rap don't have no quit in him after all, but maybe he should." And Ed growling, "That boy hard-headed, bro. Jes' too damn stubborn."

Subsequently released FBI documents make it clear that this process of paralysis by indictment and legal intimidation was by no means limited to H. Rap Brown. It was a deliberate, across-the-board COINTELPRO strategy designed to cripple radical organizations by misusing the courts. First, there were arrests of targeted activists on serious charges carrying potentially long sentences. It was of little importance to the government whether it had a legitimate case, strong enough to secure a conviction. The point was to silence and immobilize leadership while forcing groups to redirect energy and resources into raising funds, organizing legal defenses and publicizing the cases. It was a government subversion of the American justice system resulting in drawn-out Soviet-style political show trials that became commonplace in the America of the 1970s: the Chicago Seven, the Panther Twenty-One, etc., etc.

Although the overwhelming majority of these cases did not result in convictions, government documents show that they were considered great tactical successes. They kept the movements off the streets and in the courts. However, a few convictions were attained, and it is clear that at least some activists who ended up serving long sentences--some of whom remain in jail to this day--were simply framed by the government. People were convicted on perjured testimony as witnesses were bribed or coerced into lying. Exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense and made to "disappear."

As I write, Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement is still in jail. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt of the California Panthers, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was recently released after spending nearly half his life in jail for a murder that the FBI had clear evidence he could not possibly have committed. Richard Moore (Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), a New York Panther, has only recently been freed after a review of his case indicated similar government misconduct. Have you heard of the Angola Three?

These are two black men in the Louisiana State Penitentiary--Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox--who have been held in continuous solitary confinement for twenty-nine years. They, along with Robert King Wilkerson (who was freed in February 2001) are responsible for organizing a functional chapter of the Black Panther Party among the inmate population of Angola prison. In 1972 the men were convicted of the murder of a guard and have been held in isolation ever since (see www.prisonactivist.org/angola). These are only a few cases that have surfaced into public awareness. But there remain a great many such cases that seem irretrievably buried in the catacombs of legal bureaucracy. There are activists of that generation, in other words--fellow human beings and American citizens--who are in effect political prisoners, still serving time in an American gulag, often on very questionable evidence indeed.

Back to the Rap. In April 1970, after two years of tortuous legal jousting, he failed to appear in court for trial on the incitement charge and simply disappeared. For seventeen months, despite the best efforts of the FBI and an international dragnet, he appeared to have dropped from the face of the earth. To my knowledge he has never publicly discussed this period, so it remains something of a mystery. At the time, speculation was rife. None of our mutual movement friends seemed to know--or would admit to knowing--his whereabouts. He was variously rumored as being in Cuba, in Algeria, in West Africa or deceased. His brother Ed was "pretty sure" he was alive, but so completely incommunicado that even he had not a clue as to where Rap might be.

When he finally surfaced in late 1971 it was in truly astonishing circumstances and surprisingly close to home--Manhattan, in fact. His friends and supporters in the movement were stunned when large New York Times headlines proclaimed his capture, gut-shot and seriously wounded, following a running gun battle with police during "an attempted holdup" of a westside Manhattan bar. To us this made no sense. Armed robbery of a bar? C'mon, that was completely at odds with the political principles we considered ourselves to share with Rap. Indeed, had he not been in critical condition in a Harlem hospital, one would have been tempted to simply dismiss the entire story as false identification.

To many black Americans, this was an astonishing and dismaying development. The young SNCC chairman seemed to have crossed the line between militant political defiance and flat-out criminality. Much of the support he had enjoyed, both within the movement and in the general community, evaporated. But not all. According to a report from the Harlem street, "It was some black nurses who saved that boy's life. Them sisters made sure he got proper treatment in that hospital." Also, according to street lore, the bar holdup was really more of an ill-advised, armed sortie against reputed drug dealers and their police partners. After recovering from his injuries, Rap served five years in prison. Having theoretically discharged his debt to the law and re-emerged into society as Jamil Al-Amin, H. Rap Brown, for all intents and purposes, should have been history.

Jamil Al-Amin, after making the hajj to Mecca following his parole, settled in Atlanta, where his brother Ed was director of the Voter Education Project, and set out to construct a new life outside the glare of the media. The imam, peaceably studying his religion and building an Islamic congregation, became--not that McGeorge Bundy was prescient--the proprietor of a small community grocery store cum culture center in Atlanta's West End.

The next episode in this remarkable tale might be seen as that of two utterly incompatible and mutually exclusive stories. One is the narrative of H. Rap Brown, the armed militant, prone to violence--"revolutionary" or "criminal," depending on your take. This old narrative is preserved alive and well in the computerized memory banks of law enforcement and the film clips and soundbites of the media, a convenient ghost to be summoned up at will over the next thirty years.

"Y'know," his brother Ed explained, "something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile into their computer. Muslim...radical...violent...anti-American, whatever, who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil in. This actually happened. Of course it's stupid. And every time they have to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddamn nightmare, they never quit."

Then there is a more contemporary contending narrative, that of the Imam Al-Amin--pious, ascetic scholar/teacher and community leader widely perceived to have renounced violence--only to have his hard-won peace plagued at regular intervals by the ghost of the past persona, conjured up to that end.

Or, some suggest, could not the narratives sometimes merge: with the clerical robes and books of the imam being occasionally discarded for the weapons and fatigues of the militant?

One person has no doubt. "No, bro. It was just continuous harassment, pure and simple," Ed Brown says. "Harassment, sometimes routine and petty, sometimes pretty serious. Just one damn thing after another. No matter how absurd. The police simply would not leave my brother alone...an ongoing police vendetta."

Out of this series of low-level annoyances two incidents stand out. Immediately after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Imam Al-Amin was arbitrarily hauled in, interrogated and released under heavy and continuous surveillance, all in the absence of any evidence at all connecting him to the bombing--at least none the authorities cared to disclose.

Another such incident took place in August 1995. A month after a local shooting, agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms converged on Atlanta and arrested Imam Al-Amin as the shooter. At a press conference, they informed the press that the victim had identified the imam as his assailant. The charges were dropped when the victim--who subsequently joined the imam's mosque--told the press that he had not seen his assailant but had been threatened by the authorities with jail if he did not implicate Imam Al-Amin. He also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times that it was the police who first presented him with the name and photograph of Imam Al-Amin. The whole thing stank of a setup and police impropriety. However, the mainstream civil liberties establishment was silent, so it was left to the national Islamic community to question the irregularities surrounding this incident.

On August 28, 1995, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), joined by several other national Muslim organizations, held a press conference in which they called for a Justice Department investigation. The groups represented included the Islamic Society of North America, American Muslim Council, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and CAIR. Imam Al-Amin was also in attendance. The joint statement they released raises some interesting questions:

1) Why were agents of the FBI, the FBI's Counterterrorism Task Force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms involved in a case that the police themselves described as a "routine aggravated assault"?

2) Why was the victim in this case, as he himself has stated and the Journal-Constitution reported, threatened with legal charges if he failed to identify Imam Al-Amin as his assailant? And why did authorities refuse to accept the victim's repeated statements that he did not see who the assailant was?

3) Why would the authorities in Atlanta wish to implicate Imam Al-Amin in this case?

4) Why was Imam Al-Amin arrested weeks after the alleged incident, even though he was easily accessible to law enforcement officials at his public place of business? Why was he arrested in his car and not called in for questioning at police facilities?

Good questions. I am not aware of a response from the Justice Department. Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.

Five years later, on Thursday night, March 16, 2000, the troubled relationship between the brother and the various law enforcement agencies would escalate from farce to tragedy. As I write, Imam Al-Amin sits on trial on four felony murder charges, for which the state is seeking the death penalty. By the time you read this, part of the trial will have taken place, so we will have learned something of the quality and extent of the evidence the state has been able to produce in support of the thirteen charges it has brought. Here is the background--what we know of it at this time.

On the night of March 16, an exchange of gunfire between two Fulton County sheriff's deputies and persons unknown resulted in the death of Deputy Richard Kinchen and the serious injury of Deputy Aldranon English. The incident took place in the vicinity of the community mosque founded by Imam Al-Amin. According to the authorities, the deputies were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Amin, who had missed an earlier court appearance. (The charges--impersonating a police officer and receiving stolen property--while not insignificant, were relatively minor compared with the ones he now faces. Imam Al-Amin maintains that he never received notification of the court date, even though his residence and business address were well-known to authorities.)

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the Atlanta police released in rapid succession, and the media reported, four significantly different accounts of the incident. The precise location, the sequence of events, the description and even the number of assailants were all revised in these early accounts, the only constant being a "trail of blood." Deputy English was certain he'd seen, spoken to, shot and seriously wounded his attacker. The investigators reported following a "heavy trail" of blood up the steps and across the porch of an empty house. From photographs shown him, the wounded officer identified the shooter as Al-Amin, although there were discrepancies in his initial description. A regional manhunt was launched.

The local media had a field day with H. Rap Brown, whom they identified as a former Black Panther leader and all-around desperado. Apparently the most recent picture they could find was a police mug shot of a fierce-looking Black Power militant out of the 1960s. This image saturated all media (except radio) and is indicative of the general tone of the coverage. However, a few days after the shooting, when Al-Amin was arrested in Alabama, he was found to be completely free of physical injury. Subsequently very little was heard of the "wounded assailant" and the "trail of blood" motif, until it emerged in the first days of the trial.

There are other significant discrepancies between police and media reports and the known facts, but there is no need to recapitulate those here. They will come out in court, and I am no more the imam's lawyer than you are a jury of his peers. There is, however, one important dimension to this story that seems to have escaped the notice of the media.

Neither I nor the media commentators, having not been present, can say exactly what happened that night--who was present, or why and how things happened as they did. All that is indisputably clear is that an eminently avoidable human tragedy took place. One young black man was dead, another seriously injured. Somebody shot them. And a leader of the community is on trial for his life. Was this inevitable? Did any of it have to happen? Recall with me the prevailing context in which these events unfolded.

In March 2000, there was a particular mood in working-class African-American communities across the country. Our communities had been traumatized by a series of shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of police in urban centers, most of them innocent of any crime. In black Islamic communities in particular, feelings were extremely raw over the police shooting of a devout, law-abiding, unarmed young African Muslim named Amadou Diallo as he stood in the foyer of his apartment building in New York City. Although more than forty shots were fired at or into the young man, the four police perpetrators were found innocent of wrongdoing. The Diallo case was the subject of sermons in mosques across the nation, and the Atlanta mosque was no exception.

The Atlanta shootout took place within a month of the acquittal of the police officers in New York. One has to wonder, therefore, why, in the climate created by those events, the Atlanta authorities chose to act as they did. Why was it necessary to send into a Muslim community, under cover of darkness, heavily armed men wearing flak jackets to bring in a respected and beloved religious leader, a figure of fixed address and regular and predictable habits? And this in service of a warrant for charges they describe as relatively minor. Who authorized this action and in this manner? Was this abysmally poor judgment or deliberate provocation?

Al-Amin's neighbors also found it passing strange. "He understood the process, how City Hall works, how federal government works," one lady recalls. "So he was like a mayor to many people. Someone people could go to to make things happen." Another pointed out that "Jamil walked up and down the street all day, from the house to the shop to the mosque. So why would they wait till 10 o'clock at night? The man certainly wasn't hard to find."

There was a conference marking the foundation of SNCC a few months after the Atlanta shootings. The prisoner's colleagues from the movement said it well in a statement they issued there:

While we are deeply saddened by the bloodshed and loss of human life in this tragic and very avoidable incident, we are equally concerned by the presence in the record of a number of factors which threaten to compound tragedy with injustice. We refer to the number of glaring discrepancies in the official version of events and what appears to us as a precipitous and uncritical rush to judgment by the public media.
      What further distresses us is that the facts as alleged are so completely out of character with the man we have come to know as Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. For twenty years, our brother has shown himself a serious student of religion, a devout spiritual teacher as well as a public spirited community leader.

      We ourselves know him as a principled, compassionate, mature black man committed to justice for his people and the moral welfare of his community. These allegations are totally antithetical to the character of a man we greatly respect. We urge therefore a suspension of judgment pending a thorough investigation, not only of the tragic events of March 16, but of the chain of events preceding them.

Imam Al-Amin has been incarcerated since March 2000 under conditions that seem unnecessarily draconian. In solitary confinement, he was for a time deprived of his Holy Koran, and he has never been permitted to participate in weekly Jumu'ahservices with other members of his faith. He has been silenced by a court-imposed gag order. Before the order, however, he was able to make a personal statement. In the manner of his vocation and faith, the statement is issued in the name of his God, which inclines me to assume its sincerity. We should let him speak in his own voice, excerpted below:

My name is Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown. I am a devoted servant of Allah, and an unwavering devotee to His cause. For more than 30 years, I have been tormented and persecuted by my enemies for reasons of race and belief. I seek truth over a lie; I seek justice over injustice; I seek righteousness over the rewards of evildoers, and I love Allah more than I love the state.
      On March 16, 2000, Fulton County Sheriff Deputy Ricky Kinchen was killed and Sheriff Aldranon English was shot and injured in the neighborhood where I have lived, worked, and prayed. Indeed, this tragedy occurred across the street from the Mosque I founded. I have been accused by the State of Georgia of having committed these crimes. Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent of the 13 charges that have been brought against me. Let me also declare that I am one with the grief of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the loss of a beloved brother....

      [The police] have sought to marginalize my humanity and humiliate my family. They have done their level best to reduce me to a one-dimensional monster.... I am no monster. I am a human being created by Allah and am an instrument of his purpose. I am entitled to every right and every consideration as every other human being including fairness, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

The trial currently under way may not prove particularly inspiring, but it will certainly be instructive. It doubtless can do little to resolve, or, in the fashion of the day, deconstruct, the prevailing paradox of the Brown/Al-Amin personas. Thus it will tell us less about the accused than about justice and the state of the nation in its present mood. Less about guilt or innocence than about respect for human rights.

For, as Jimmy Baldwin, our late Prophet, warned, "In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger is not legend but consequence.... A people pay for what they do, and still more for what they allow themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the life they lead."

It is now for the state and Al-Amin's fellow citizens to speak. In the national mood following the horrific events of September 11, it will be instructive to see what they say.

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."

In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.

But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King's appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America's best ideals.

Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King's work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush's oft-repeated statement--originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall--of "you're either with us or against us" and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.

Trust, don't ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat "either-or" dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no "or" about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.

These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King's time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, "Civil rights"--or human rights I think he would add in today's global context--"civil rights is an eternal moral issue..."

Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are "with us" as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are "against us." You're either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you're a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.

I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who the enemy is.

But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it's a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?

I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys--such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally "courting" the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don't believe it's a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.

Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a "clash of civilizations." This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates--whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now--do not a civilization make.

As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King's message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he's often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.

The high point of liberal faith that the color line might be permanently breached may have been the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From a participant's perspective it is difficult to forget the sea of 200,000 black and white demonstrators behind the figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and other prominent civil rights leaders, arms confidently linked, marching toward an egalitarian future. In the wake of Southern freedom rides and lunch-counter sit-ins to break the racial barriers to public accommodations (while early Northern urban insurgencies began protesting economic oppression), in quick succession Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. By 1965 many were convinced that the long-deferred dream of equality and justice was at hand. But as it turned out, the movement was not equal to its dream. The decade that began with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against school segregation, and ended with Congressional enactment of legislation that seemed to fulfill the betrayed promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction turned out to be the last great outpouring of racial unity in the twentieth century. The reassertion of the racial divide became the story of the next thirty-five years. Even as antipoverty programs, affirmative action and war-fueled prosperity helped expand the black middle class, housing and school segregation worsened, and, because of the deindustrialization of most major cities, black and Latino unemployment became intractable. In the wake of the misery of many black ghettos we have seen the return of racial thinking, especially eugenics, that hated doctrine developed at the apex of the British Empire by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, among others. Far from earlier belief--shared by scientists, human rights advocates and many political leaders--that there is only one human species, race has made a roaring comeback on the left as much as the right. Moreover, on both sides of the ideological divide science has been mobilized to reassert the legitimacy of race as a "natural" division within the species, not only in the United States but also in other advanced industrial societies.

Paul Gilroy, whose Black Atlantic broke through the nation-specific context of race politics, has written a powerful, albeit minoritarian defense of the position that racial thinking--not just racism--is a key obstacle to human freedom (an aspiration, he sadly notes, that has virtually disappeared from political discourse). In his analysis of the origins and uses of racial thinking Gilroy spares from his critique neither black pride nor black separatism, let alone racism's most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism. He argues, provocatively, for an alternative to antihumanist identity politics that would veer toward defining community as a geographical as much as a racial concept, what he calls "planetary humanism." He also propounds an unabashed cosmopolitanism to replace nationalism as a solution to racial oppression. The result is that he has offered one of the most impressive refutations of race as an anthropological concept since the publication of Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race more than fifty years ago. But where the older work rode the crest of a wave of early postwar antiracial thinking propelled by the general recognition that the crimes of Hitlerism were a consequence of racial populism, Gilroy's attempted revival comes at a time when identity politics, with its ideology of separatism, seems to have displaced forms of universal humanism. Communitarianism, which holds that people have the right to circle the wagons around their territory and impose their group's values on strangers, has reached all corners of political discourse, including the White House. In these times the frequently invoked slogans of human rights enjoy only strategic currency.

Gilroy traces racial thinking to three major sources: First, "raciology," discredited in its blatant, authoritarian manifestation, lives on in the guise of pseudoscientific claims that the black body has biologically rooted attributes of superior strength, beauty and endurance; second, the various movements to counter oppression by affirming racial solidarity on the basis of a separate black identity; and third, colonialism and slavery's systematic deracination of the black self and its consequent denial that blacks should be considered part of universal humanity, which has occasionally but spectacularly given rise to genocidal activities in the name of racial purity.

According to Gilroy, the persistence of raciology is partly attributable to the growing cultural importance of visual thinking, which increasingly influences our conceptions of truth. The dominance of image over writing has had a profound influence over what we take as reliable knowledge. Photography, film and television have altered how we understand the world. Despite overwhelming scientific theory and practice maintaining that there are no fundamental biological differences, physically or intellectually, within the human species, Gilroy contends, the manipulated images of advertising and other artifacts of consumer society apparently belie these judgments. Citing Spike Lee's alliance with a leading advertising agency, DDB Needham, to promote a bland version of multicultural blackness as an example of how raciology has walked through the back door of commercialized black identity, Gilroy accuses some leading black cultural figures of complicity with a crass version of market capitalism to advance their own interests.

Gilroy begins by marshaling evidence, culled from the scientific and technological revolutions of molecular biology and computer science, to support his contention that the concept of essential racial difference has lost its scientific basis even as attempts are made, by means of pseudobiological arguments, to support the view that humanity is divided by inherent, natural differences. "There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body," nor, he believes, is there an inherent black physical superiority. Citing advances in medical imaging that reveal the body on a "nanoscale," he argues that the human body is increasingly understood by science as code and information and, echoing Frantz Fanon, one of his major interlocutors, should not be "epidermalized." In other words, we are not defined by skin color or intrinsic biological traits but by the "patterned interaction" between human organisms and the ecosystem within which we live and develop.

Against Race reserves some of its harshest gibes for identity politics and its companion, "multicultural blackness." Gilroy's criticism ranges from the fairly well-traveled issue of how consumerism shapes identity to how identity may lead to genocide. One of his milder illustrations is that in a society in which the marketplace assumes pride of place, the "car you drive, the clothes you wear" and other items of consumption define who we are. We are identical with our visible signs. But this is only a preliminary consideration to the far more frightening geopolitical tendency to link identity to warring constituencies who sometimes try to exterminate one another, such as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. To underline the horror of the conflation of physical appearance and national identity, Gilroy gives an example of the large-scale killing of Tutsis because their identity card marked them, "or they did not have their card with them...and were therefore unable to prove they were not a Tutsi." Some were killed because soldiers believed "they were too tall" to be Hutu. In calling this an example of the history of "unspeakable barbarity," Gilroy remarks on "how the notion of fixed identity operates easily on both sides of the chasm that usually divides scholarly writing from the disorderly world of political conflicts." He notes that scholarship is often unable to go beyond what it perceives as primal difference, just as political actors seem incapable of seeing the Other as anything but evil.

Contrasting the music of Bob Marley, whom he takes, virtually without reservation, as an authentic black voice for universal human freedom, with hip-hop, especially in its recent incarnations, as a misogynous, cynical and exploitative product of Tin Pan Alley, Gilroy enters the vociferous debate about black popular culture. He chides critics who perpetuate the myth derived from hip-hop's earlier character as a local and rebellious musical expression and who insist that, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, hip-hop is "marginal" and oppositional to mainstream culture. For Gilroy the leading figures of the genre, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and others, rode to their popularity on some of the more regressive masculinist sentiments even as they retain rebellious images in the guise of glorifying the figure of the gangsta. These views are not likely to endear Gilroy to those who find hope in the fragments of social critique that remain in the music. I believe he overstates the case. For all of its commercial uses, "avant-garde" hip-hop remains quite subversive to the dominant theme of the American Celebration.

This leads to perhaps the most controversial sections of the book: Gilroy's attempt to demonstrate the link between the fascist politics of racial identity and black nationalism, especially the views of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s and early 1930s organized and led a mass Back to Africa movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

Reflecting recent scholarship, Gilroy denies that fascism was a singular, exceptional event limited to the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, he connects its appearance in the interwar period--and persistence after the defeats of the German and Italian armies and the collapse of their governments--to the history of colonialism and to the contradictions between the universalistic, humanistic claims of Enlightenment culture and the militarism that marked its sordid record of conquest.

Invoking the bloody history of Western imperialism's subordination of colonial peoples in the name of civilizing the "barbarians," Gilroy makes the explicit connection to Hitler, whose rise to power was not merely a reflection of German resentment at its humiliation by the Allies and the legacy of colonialism. Germany's drive for European and African conquest was based on Hitler's doctrine of racial purity and superiority. More than a dictator, he was an impressive ideologue whose ideas attracted substantial support among Germans and have had enduring influence in the emergence of contemporary ultrarightist movements, some of which, like those in France and Italy, have won considerable popular following. The core of fascism is biological essentialism manifested in the marriage of racial identity with nationalism, ideas that won the admiration of Garvey and some other black nationalists. Moreover, like many nationalisms, Garvey's was anti-Semitic, and Gilroy shows that he admired Hitler.

Not that Gilroy equates black separatism with fascism. But he places considerable weight on the deracination of the Jews by fascism as the major modern form of racism and as a precursor to the calumnies that followed their extermination. His point is that the Holocaust and the Rwanda tragedy--indeed, all genocidal acts grounded in racial purity and racial separatism--contain the potential for unspeakable barbarity because they entail the denial of the Other's claim to humanity. Once the Other has been endowed with essential qualities that may be coded as subhuman--or evil--there may be no question of observing its fundamental rights. Thus, for Gilroy, black anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is self-defeating.

In promulgating his viewpoint Gilroy relies on the authority of three thinkers who, as it turned out, vainly fought for the notion of human liberation: Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst who decried all attempts to link humans to their skin color and never tired of reminding the metropolis of its obligation to live up to the promise of the Enlightenment; Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite the violence and humiliation suffered by American blacks, insisted that the task of the civil rights movement was to secure entrance into American society but who also recognized toward the end of his life that rights are not enough and integration into an unjust society is not desirable. King became the principal tribune of the indivisibility of freedom and, in its pursuit, lost his life while participating in one of the monumental struggles of the Southern labor movement. The last thinker, Richard Wright, is Gilroy's model of a cosmopolitan intellectual who removed himself to France rather than bear witness to the disintegration of the promise of freedom in his own country. Wright is the exemplar of the intellectual exile, yet he remained rooted to the problems and pain of blacks in his native land. Disdaining what he called "tribalism," Wright used his celebrity to make a spirited case that the newly independent African states should embark, despite all, on the road to modernity.

Gilroy's reach is dazzling, his analysis acute and insightful, but in the end he recognizes that, lacking a political constituency for his planetary humanism, his ideas remain not a program but a utopian hope. Significantly, in the last chapter he invokes Theodor Adorno, who, in his years in California, made shrewd but ungenerous commentary on various aspects of US popular culture. Gilroy's sharp criticisms of black elites--especially the middle class, who, even as they distance themselves from the black working class have embraced a mixture of black separatism and assimilation into the dominant market culture--do not lead him to consider global class politics as a practical way to achieve the cosmopolitan movement he would create, any more than Adorno could see beyond the "the totally administered society" he abhorred. At the end of the day, Against Race remains the brilliant jeremiad of an out-of-step intellectual whose main weapon is criticism. There are few who do it better.

Blogs

Baldwin published his first piece in The Nation, and for many years thereafter continued to attack a system he thought as close to anarchy as to martial law.

August 10, 2013

How does the movie The Help "photoshop" American history?

February 27, 2012