THE CAPTURE of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, AKA H. Rap Brown, in Lowndes County, Ala., marks the close of two eras in the history of American race relations. Both may be said to have begun in the place where U.S. law-enforcement officials last week apprehended Al-Amin and ended a massive manhunt for the killer of sheriff's deputy Richard Kinchen, who was gunned down in a vicious ambush almost a week earlier in Atlanta.
Al-Amin had fled to the rural community where he had begun his political career in the early '60s as a member of Stokely Carmichael's Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1964, he and Carmichael were key activists in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a nonviolent Christian group that tried to put black candidates on the ballot under new civil-rights laws, which that very year had put an end to the era of segregation.
The emblem of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was a black panther. Odd for a Christian electoral effort, the panther symbol was soon to inspire a group of urban gang members in Oakland, Calif., led by Huey Newton. Newton called his group the Black Panther Party, a violent, radical paramilitary organization that quickly became the favorite vanguard of the New Left. Tom Hayden even christened the Panthers "America's Vietcong," reflecting the political fantasy of '60s radicals who considered themselves at war with America.
In 1968, at Newton's invitation, leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were inducted into the Panthers and H. Rap Brown, whose path-breaking use of violent rhetoric had given him national notoriety, briefly became its "minister of justice." The alliance was Newton's attempt to unite his political gang with the organization whose symbol he had appropriated.
By then Carmichael and Brown had become national figures, Young Turks in the civil-rights movement who were dissatisfied with the extraordinary victories the movement had peacefully achieved. Carmichael and Brown turned their backs on nonviolence and integration, derided the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and preached instead a gospel of "black power" and armed revolution. "Violence," Brown declared in the only statement for which he is known, "is as American as cherry pie." Cheered on by the mostly white radical New Left, they reviled King as an Uncle Tom and set themselves on a course of confrontation and violence and—above all— rejection of the American idea into which King sought inclusion for black Americans.
The negative impact of the radical black left, which Newton, Brown, and Carmichael inspired over the years, can hardly be overestimated. It spawned a generation of violent rage and separatism and a legacy of black racism, which tarnished the legacy of the civil-rights movement and is still with us today. Posing as a "servant of the people," Newton extorted Oakland's inner-city community, conducting shakedown operations of local "after hours" clubs and other illegal activities. His death came at the hands of a crack dealer he had burned.
As soon as the '60s were over, Carmichael left the country to live as a courtier of the dictator Sekou Toure, whose brutal rule caused 250,000 Guinean citizens to flee their West African homeland. After more than a decade in exile, Carmichael—who had changed his name to "Kwame Toure" (thus honoring two dictators, Toure and Kwame Nkrumah)—returned to America to become a follower of Louis Farrakhan and a spewer of anti-American bile and racial hate.
H. Rap Brown spent the first five years of the '70s in jail. His violent rages, dressed up as "political protest," had landed him a prison term for attempted armed robbery (lesser charges for inciting a riot were not prosecuted). He emerged from confinement to become a religious Muslim, "imam" of his own mosque, and leader of his own personal cult among drug addicts and the homeless in Atlanta's West End.
Many will shrink from the cold look that these lives deserve. They will talk of the "idealism" that was once present and is now lost. An astute black writer and former radical, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, wrote in an article for Netnoir.com, a black webzine: "[Brown's] capture will almost certainly trigger another round of media reflection on how he, the Panthers, and other 1960s black radicals drowned the genuine idealism and passion for social change of thousands of blacks in an ocean of selfishness, greed, opportunism, and nihilistic violence. Some of this will be true, but what it misses is the sacrifice and struggle of thousands of men and women against injustice. And for a time that certainly included Brown."
My own view is somewhat different. I don't think there is any chance that either the media or the American public will forget or cease to honor the idealism of the civil-rights movement. What they will take from Al-Amin's criminal trajectory is a lesson about the radicalism that derailed the civil-rights movement and politically rationalized hate. The violent conclusion of Brown's political career will be correctly taken as symbolic of the bankruptcy of the revolutionary left in America's remarkable opportunity society.
The hapless victim of Al-Amin's alleged crime was an officer of the law who led an exemplary life and who was black. The chief of the Atlanta Police Department, which led the hunt for the killer, is black and female. Atlanta, once the heart of the slaveholding Confederacy, is today the center of the liberated New South, itself a tribute to the triumphant moral crusade of King, the leader who preached nonviolence and integration, and whom Brown, Carmichael, and Newton temporarily displaced and tried in vain to discredit and destroy. For it is King's legacy that has survived and triumphed.
The rule of law is now a rule that not only includes black Americans as King dreamed but is enforced by black Americans as well.