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Tempered by Muslim teachings, Imam Jamil remains unbowed A WHOLE NEW RAP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Atlanta -- The 51-year-old Muslim leader who used to be known as H. Rap Brown drives toward the basket against this weedy kid, dribbles behind his back and through his legs and scores with a little jumper that leaves the faithful laughing.

"Look at the imam making all them 1960s moves," a guy on the sidelines yells. "Somebody call 911."

Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin looks long, lean and loose in this half-court pickup game against neighborhood guys a third of his age. But beneath his Islamic skullcap his hair is gray and cropped.

He had a black, bushy "Afro" when he was making his moves in the '60s as Rap Brown, a fiery champion of Black Power who was indicted in Maryland for inciting a 1967 riot that left Cambridge in flames.

Almost three decades later, he's the revered imam, a spiritual leader of the second largest community of traditional Muslims in the United States. He's a valued leader in his West End neighborhood. And he's charged with shooting a young man in this park where he's playing basketball -- a young man who now claims the police pressured him into identifying the imam as his assailant.

With its echoes of the '60s, the controversy has thrust the name H. Rap Brown back into the spotlight, back into the public consciousness.

Since his arrest, Imam Jamil has been vigorously denying any connection with the shooting of 22-year-old William Miles, who was hit in the right leg with a bullet as he was walking through West End Park about midnight July 26.

The imam's been on talk radio, on television and at rallies, giving interviews at his tiny grocery store at the edge of West End Park. He remains the shrewd, powerful and convincing speaker Cambridge remembers from the Sixties, the man who earned an entry in Bartlett's familiar quotations with his catchphrase "Violence is as American as cherry pie."

The imam is convinced that his reputation from that time dogs him now. And that, says Jamil Al-Amin, explains why he was arrested near his home Aug. 7 by a squad of officers that included Atlanta policemen and agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"My feeling concerning myself," he says "is that the federal government has never been comfortable with the fact that I just did five years [in prison] and, after coming out, I really never did apologize."

The Atlanta police insist Imam Jamil was not targeted, and they stand by his arrest. Officers would "never pressure anyone to make any statement that is not true," a police spokesman says.

An FBI spokesman says its agents were along for Imam Jamil's arrest only because the local policeman assigned to the case is a member of the bureau's Joint Counterterrorism Task Force. The task force's primary mission here is to make sure Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, does not become a target for terrorists.

Imam Jamil was charged with aggravated assault in the shooting of Mr. Miles and two weapons charges. The arresting officers say he had a .45 semi-automatic pistol when they stopped his car in front of his home.

But the case against him is unraveling.

Earlier this week Mr. Miles told the Atlanta Constitution he was urged to identify the imam by an Atlanta police officer. And yesterday Mr. Miles appeared before 200 worshipers at Imam Jamil's Community Mosque, according to Kenneth Rasheed, a Muslim lawyer-educator.

He took a declaration of faith as a Muslim and said again he could not identify Jamil Al-Amin as the person who shot him.

Imam Jamil believes he has been under surveillance virtually since he settled in Atlanta some 20 years ago.

"They've made [Islamic] fundamentalism synonymous with terrorism," he says. "The same thing they did with 'black.' They made it synonymous with militancy and radicalism in the '60s. The message is the same."

As H. Rap Brown he was famous as a scornful, angry advocate of direct action. He served five years in New York prisons before and after being convicted of the stickup of a craps game at a Harlem bar. In the ferocious shootout that ensued, Brown and a policeman were shot.

In his 1993 book "Revolution by the Book," the imam, who seems to have a certain talent for self-justification, says the bar was "targeted for its exploitation of the community."

He came to Atlanta soon after his parole in 1976. Felony charges of riot and arson filed after the Cambridge fires were reduced to misdemeanors, and he never served any time in Maryland.

"Cambridge?" he says. "I wasn't in Cambridge long enough to have feelings about Cambridge as a place.

"It was [in] another place I spoke. I spoke at many different places. But I think a kind of racism that was exemplified in Cambridge was typical of America -- a violent kind of, a venomous kind of, racism.

"It's still American," he says. "For African-Americans, America hasn't meant anything positive. What can you say? Good old slavery. Good old segregation. Good old Jim Crow."

He snorts a sardonic laugh.

"I went there. I spoke there. I got shot. I left," he says.

It was July 24, 1967, and Rap Brown was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He climbed on to the hood of a car and told about 350 people in a vacant lot "It's time for Cambridge to explode, baby.

"Black folks built America and if America don't come around we're going to burn America down."

Somebody already had tried to burn down the elementary school.

"You should have burned it down long ago," he said.

His speech was over about 10 p.m. He was walking a woman home when he says he was ambushed by two black auxiliary policemen.

Grazed by a shotgun pellet

"I was shot with a shotgun," he says. "They just opened fire. I got hit across the head here with a shotgun pellet. Grazed me, cut me."

He was treated at the local hospital about 10:30 p.m. and that was the last time anybody saw him in Cambridge.

The elementary school started burning about 2 a.m. and soon a couple blocks of the black business district were burning. White firemen refused to enter the area to put out the fire. Gov. Spiro T. Agnew sent in 600 National Guardsmen and the next morning they patrolled with fixed bayonets and ammunition clipped to their fatigue jackets.

Rap Brown was spirited away in a coffin, some say. Is that right?

"I've never said," he replies. "They probably would have liked me to leave in a coffin."

He neither apologizes nor repudiates his actions in the '60s, nor is he repentant. He does not seem to be a 23-year-old radical who has mellowed into a 51-year-old conservative.

Other black radicals from the 60s have long since given up the struggle or joined the mainstream.

Former Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale peddles cookbooks and barbecue sauce. Eldridge Cleaver, author of "Soul on Ice," is a born-again Christian and a Republican. Marion Barry, the first chairman of SNCC, is the ever-battered mayor of Washington. Angela Davis, who once made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, is a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

And H. Rap Brown is now a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca three times. He sees himself continuing his struggle along another path.

Widely respected

He's widely respected throughout Atlanta's Muslim community and serves as chair of Atlanta's Council of Imams.

He sits on an old barber chair in his tiny corner grocery store on the edge of the park, receiving all comers, holding forth like a dignified community elder on his innocence and on whatever anybody cares to talk about.

The imam sometimes uses a communal "we," sometimes the editorial "we," sometimes a magisterial "we" that approaches the imperious. He often refers to those who oppose him as "They." He means "the keepers of the establishment."

"They wanted me to come out of prison broken," he says. "Oh, yeah, they wanted me to be broken. Prison is supposed to break you.

"They" wouldn't consider him rehabilitated, he says, "unless I came out in a posture where I was willing to be a page for some congressman, a janitor at the White House.

"Allah has allowed me to accomplish in Islam the very things that they fear," he says. "That is to be able to be a part again of a viable movement."

He often quotes from the Koran, the holy book of Islam.

"Tyranny and oppression is worse than slaughter," he says. "Fight them wherever you might find them. That's a command from Allah."

His store is sparsely stocked with crackers, Karo, tuna fish, Ajax for the laundromat two doors away and penny candy for the kids. There's a pool table and outside the back door an unfinished, unkempt deck.

On one wall inside a poster pleads for aid for Bosnia's Muslims and opposite is a large painting of the elaborate domed mosque he dreams of building.

His Community Mosque is now a battered blue-painted one-story Southern-style frame house across the street, catty-corner from the store. The prayer hall is a big open room painted white with vaguely oriental rugs on the floor, a chalk board scrawled with Arabic script, a few books on Islam and a tall space heater for cooler weather.

"I like the peace and serenity in Imam Jamil's mosque," says Wali Akbar Muhammad, 56, the author of a history of Muslims in Georgia. "I like to just sit there."

The imam was in jail on Riker's Island in New York when he converted to Islam. The followers of Dar Ul Salaam, a traditional ,, Muslim community established in New York for nearly 50 years, held services at the prison.

Fareed H. Numan, a Washington research analyst who has been a consultant for the American Muslim Council, sees Imam Jamil's National Community as the successor of Dar Ul Salaam, which no longer exists.

Bigger than Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, the National Community has 30 to 40 affiliate mosques across the country and about 20,000 to 30,000 followers, Mr. Numan says. And unlike Nation of Islam, the National Community is totally accepted by traditional Islam.

Imam Jamil is a Sunni Muslim, a follower of the "well-trodden path," which the majority of Muslims in the world follow.

"It is Allah who makes Muslims," the imam says. "But again our whole life is a process of growth, an evolutionary process."

He remembers growing up in Baton Rouge, La., where he was born in 1943, in a black community bound by segregation.

The death of Emmett

"The thing that had the most profound impact was when Emmett Till was killed," he says. "That really drove home the whole temper of what this system of apartheid really represented."

He was about 12 when Emmett, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, was beaten and murdered in Sumner, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955, for allegedly hugging and whistling at a white woman.

"We were cautious. We understood innately that outside of this community there was danger," he says. "We grew up with this guarded kind of attitude.

"When we got older and got involved in the Movement we had to address those fears that had been ingrained in us," he says.

He was in his early 20s when he joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and went to work in Mississippi and Alabama. He became SNCC's director in Alabama, where field workers were registering people to vote.

"We never advocated aggressive violence as a national platform in our program," he says. "But the right to self-defense, we say, and still say, is a right that has been granted by the Creator. Very few creatures won't defend themselves."

But he never was more than an honorary Black Panther, he says.

"When the Panthers' became a national organization, they madme an honorary member of the Panthers by making me minister of justice. They made Kwame Toure, who is Stokely Carmichael, an honorary Panther, by making him Prime Minister.

He disclaims the phrase "Burn, Baby, Burn!"

"I think that came about in 1965 in the the rebellion in Watts," he says. "That predates me."

But he doesn't disclaim his famous observation about violence and cherry pie.

"It's just as true today," the imam says, "as it was then."

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