Black Power Gets Bad Rap
by Prof. Jonathan D. Farley, D.Phil. (Oxford), A.B. (Harvard)
Brrnngg!_ I got the call around 8 a.m. on my day off fromwork. "Did you hear?" said a woman's voice. "H. Rap Brownis being sought by police after two cops were shot."
Hubert "Rap" Brown. A name seen more often in history books than in newspapers these days. Early advocate of Black Power. One-time chairman of SNCC, the legendary Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that won voting rights for blacks in Mississippi and rural Georgia in the Sixties. Recalcitrant whites often shot and bombed SNCC workers, but the men responsible for stopping the violence---the police and FBI---often sided with the perpetrators.
I thought about what the woman on the phone had just told
me. "Sounds bogus," I said. While my field of expertise is not civil
rights history---I have a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford, and I was only born in 1970---I _am_ a student of the Black Power Movement. And I'd heard this story too many times before: A Black Power advocate is accused of violent crimes, despite all evidence to the contrary.
A California congressman once compared H. Rap Brown and Nelson
Mandela to white serial killer Ted Bundy. You see, in America, being
passionately pro-black is itself almost a felony.
Let me explain: In the late Sixties, after years of seeing racist whites murder black women and children with impunity, Rap Brown concluded, reluctantly, that blacks must take whatever means are necessary to secure our Constitutional freedoms, even if that
means talking back or _shooting_ back at rioting whites.
When, in 1967, a riot erupted in Maryland after one of his
speeches, even though he was no longer in the state, Brown was
arrested. Maryland governor Spiro Agnew (later Vice President) said that, just for giving the speech, he hoped that police would "put [Brown] away and throw away the key." So much for the First Amendment; so much for due process.
Evidence of a conspiracy against Rap---to keep him from leading
blacks to America's promised land---was plain to all: The FBI had tapped Rap's phones even before he became SNCC's chairman, and, the day before Rap's trial on the riot charges was to begin, two of his SNCC associates were murdered by a car bomb.
Further, secret FBI documents uncovered by the Senate in the
Seventies tell a chilling story: Even though FBI agents reported from
the field that Black Power groups like the Panthers posed no threat of
violence, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover insisted that stories be "leaked" to the media that these groups were violent and
criminal in order to erode their liberal support.
Brown was sentenced to the max. Because of the threats on his
life, he fled, but was later caught and forced to serve time. After
prison, Rap became a Muslim and changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.
I hung up the phone and turned on CNN. I already knew what I
would hear, but I braced myself nonetheless:
Two Atlanta police officers had been sent to speak to Brown after
some type of incident. When they approached his place of residence, in an Atlanta ghetto, shots were fired. (It is not clear whether the police fired first or not.) Only deep into the story did the reporter point out that _Brown was not even a suspect_ in the shooting. The headline was misleading, but the damage had already been done: In the American imagination, the term Black Power had once again been branded with the labels "criminal" and "guilty."
The list of cases like Rap's is long---Leonard Peltier,
Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal.... Men and women unjustly accused, imprisoned, living in exile, or awaiting death simply for asserting their unalienable rights, even if the formal charges brought against them are criminal. Because to fight for the downtrodden
_is_ criminal. It was called insurrection in the Old South and heresy in
America, wake up: _H. Rap Brown is innocent until_ (and perhaps
even _if_) _proven guilty in a court of law._ All that he is guilty of
is straight-shooting from the lip. Anything else is a bad rap.
Dr. Jonathan D. Farley is a mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University in
Nashville, and a graduate of Harvard and Oxford. He is writing a book on
"How to Get Straight A's in College."
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