H. Rap Brown
October 4, 1943 –
Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
When Hubert “Rap” Brown joined efforts to hold a Freedom Vote in Greene County, Alabama in 1966, he was a veteran of direct action. At the age of 15, he organized a walkout of students at Southern High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in solidarity with ongoing demonstrations at nearby Southern University. The walkout caused the administration to shut the school down for two days and nearly got him expelled. Eight years later, H. Rap Brown joined with local activists in the Alabama Black Belt to challenge white supremacy through the ballot box. In Greene County, that meant fighting to get Black candidates on the ballot, and it meant direct confrontations with authorities. Brown was steadfast in his determination and deeply committed to the cause. “I knew it was my responsibility to work for the liberation of my people and anybody who tried to stop me might get killed.”
Hubert Gerold “Rap” Brown was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a child, he was sent to a Catholic orphanage for schooling, but he was frustrated with school and “always at odds with teachers.” He had to learn to protect himself from gangs of older children every day on the way home from school and became adept at fighting with his fists and his words. The name “Rap” was given to him in respect for the word games that he played with other boys on the streets, demonstrating his command of language, a sharp wit, and a mature political sensibility.
His older brother, Edward Brown, helped direct his youthful enthusiasm toward constructive uses in the Movement. As a student at Southern University, Ed Brown was expelled after participating in and leading protests and decided to move to Washington, D.C. where he enrolled at Howard University. Ed would regularly host his younger brother and bring him to meetings on campus with the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). Through NAG and its members, which included Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, and Muriel Tillinghast, Rap Brown was introduced to the Movement and to important political ideas and practices. By 1964, he was one of the leaders of the NAG chapter at Howard, although he was not a Howard student.
He came to Mississippi as a volunteer during the 1964 Freedom Summer. But frustrated by the barriers to voting rights there, he returned to Washington after only four weeks. His alienation from establishment political processes grew after the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in Atlantic City and the failure of President Johnson to recognize the validity of that challenge. The two seats offered as a compromise to the MFDP’s demand for full seating infuriated Brown, who declared that the experience was “very significant because it made us realize that the whole conspiracy was not just a conspiracy of the South.” Brown blamed “the liberals, our friends,” for “turn[ing] against us.”
After Stokely Carmichael stepped down as SNCC’s chairman to pursue grassroots activism, Brown was elected to the position at Carmichael’s recommendation. Carmichael called him “a serious, strong brother” with “a calm, deliberate manner and a presence that inspired confidence.” Brown’s tenure, however, was marked with escalating conflict and confrontation with authorities. He was instrumental in the renaming of SNCC which replaced “Nonviolent” with “National.” Confrontations with authorities escalated to the point where the U.S. Congress passed an anti-riot act, known as the “Rap Brown Law,” in 1968. Legal troubles forced Brown to step down from SNCC, but he remained committed to the Movement. “Liberation movements,” he argued, “must be based upon political principles that give meaning and substance to the struggles of the masses of people, and it is this struggle that advances the creation of a people’s ideology.”
Brown was arrested for robbery and jailed in Attica Prison (1971-76). While incarcerated, he embraced Islam and adopted the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. After his release he became an important spiritual leader in Atlanta’s West End, campaigning against drugs. In 2000, he was accused and convicted of shooting two Fulton County deputy sheriffs. He is currently in prison serving a life sentence.
H. Rap Brown, Die, Nigger, Die! A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, April 1, 2002).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).
Faith S. Holsaert, et al., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Hasan Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press).