By Obaid H. Siddiqui
Imam Jamil Al-Amin, once known as H. Rap Brown, rose to fame for his eloquently defiant revolutionary stance against the institutional and social racism of the 1960s, and then for his role as a local, national, and international Muslim leader in the decades since. He rose to infamy after his murder conviction in 2002. Yet, most people have never heard of him.
I knew of him vaguely through brief news stories in the past. When I had spoken to anyone about his case, I found the same uncertain response: “I think he killed a couple of cops or something.” Thus, the image of crazed cop killer began to take root, even within the Muslim community. Very few, if any, members of the mainstream national Muslim scene voiced any support for the Imam, and those that did were implicitly deemed conspiratorial. Additionally, he was convicted only a few months after 9/11 – so any existing or potential support for Al-Amin was drowned out by the newly surfacing anti-Muslim hysteria and emerging “war on terror.”
As a result, my understanding of Al-Amin’s story was based on second-hand knowledge, hearsay, and general ambiguity. A friend and I discussed researching the case on our own, but we never followed through. The idea faded until I was approached with an opportunity to write for ILLUME Magazine. I was asked to do a short write-up on a rally for Al-Amin in March. After a couple of calls, I knew I had a bigger story than just the rally. I spent a few months researching his case, reviewing various legal documents and historic records; interviewing Al-Amin’s family, friends, and past acquaintances; tracking down lawyers, judges, and F.B.I. agents – one of whom actually congratulated me for finding him since he was so difficult to hunt down. The more I read and reported, the more captivating his story became. In fact, I was shocked with what I found. I spent most of my days reading documents and finding people to interview; I spent whole nights feverishly writing, editing, and rewriting. By that time it was clear Al-Amin’s story needed to be told, his voice heard once again, his presence acknowledged by the country he worked so diligently to improve.
Al-Amin, unlike other members of the Civil Rights Movement, was never whitewashed; he was never retrospectively reimagined as a folk hero. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s anti-establishment stance on the Vietnam war has been forgotten; he is now the saintly preacher whose likeness is depicted in an enormous statue in Washington D.C. Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz) was a demagogue and pariah in the eyes of the white power structure and the bourgeois black middle-class; he is now a symbol of intellectual cool and his image graced a U.S. postal stamp in 1999. In the time that elapsed since both men’s assassinations, society has grown to respect their courage and conviction.
Yet similar traits in Al-Amin have not only been ignored, but also maligned. He’s been caricatured as a violent revolutionist, his story devoid of the context given to those who passed before him. Perhaps only in death do we as a society grow reflective. Or possibly, since Al-Amin is alive, he still remains a threat to the establishment. Either way, this dynamic and historic member of the American narrative is now sitting in an underground cell, within the most secure prison in the world, in solitary confinement. His voice – the tool of his efficacy – has been silenced.
That voice, which earned him the respectful nickname of “Rap,” was on full, public display in the ‘60s. In 1968, a 25-year-old Al-Amin spoke to a rapt audience at a rally to support then-Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton who had recently been arrested. Quoting Che Guevara, Al-Amin said, “There are only two ways to leave the battlefield – victorious or dead. Huey is in jail. That’s no victory; that’s a concession.”
Al-Amin is not dead, nor is he victorious. To the authorities, his life has been conceded – given to a power structure that has tried to bring about his demise since the late 1960s. However, Al-Amin conceded his life to a higher power long ago. Despite being locked away in isolation, his spirit roams on. Al-Amin continues to pray devoutly to his Lord in solitude – his history revoked, story untold, case considered closed.
However, his case is far from closed. His legal team, family, and supporters continue to push for a retrial based on new evidence never presented to the jury that convicted him. Is Imam Jamil Al-Amin a cop killer? Or is he the victim of a 45-year-old federal vendetta? I present to you elements of his story that have not been revealed in detail before.