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Rap Brown Took Shelter Ala. County

March 21, 2000 GMT

WHITE HALL, Ala. (AP) _ The arrest of former black militant H. Rap Brown in rural Alabama stirred up memories of a time when tiny Lowndes County claimed a prominent role in the civil rights movement and the clamor for black power.

Brown, a Muslim who now goes by the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, was wanted in the shooting of a sheriff’s deputy in Atlanta when he was captured Monday night in the same backwoods region where he helped lead a voting rights push in the 1960s.

His return as a fugitive raised a question of whether he is the black power rebel of old or a wrongly accused Islam convert who began as a peaceful voting rights advocate.

``He’s a religious leader now,″ said Sharif Al-Malik, a Muslim who recently moved to White Hall from nearby Selma. ``Instead of saying, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ he says if you don’t do right hell will burn you.″

Al-Amin tried to form a mosque in White Hall about a year ago, Mayor John Jackson said. Several Muslim families live in the town, and friends of Al-Amin ran a restaurant called Bismallah Cafe, or ``In the Name of God,″ where no pork or alcohol was served.

The restaurant is now closed.

``They didn’t even allow people in the restaurant who were drinking and smoking,″ Jackson said. ``Young people couldn’t believe that.

``They were really good for the community.″

Al-Amin’s legacy in Lowndes County is mixed.

In the 1960s, the voting rights protest led Al-Amin and others to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which took the black panther as its emblem _ in sharp contrast to the dominant local Democratic Party’s white rooster.

``They all were interested in grass-roots organizing,″ said Clayborne Carson, a Stanford historian and director of the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. ``Particularly in developing independent, black-controlled political organizations. That became the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and then they took the symbol.″

``We knew the panther was a noble animal and didn’t bother anybody, and we didn’t bother anybody,″ said John Hulett, a black man who went door to door fighting to bring blacks to the polls and who eventually became Lowndes County’s sheriff. ``But when you put a panther in a corner, he’s not going to run away, and that’s why we chose them.″

But when Al-Amin and fellow civil rights activist Stokeley Carmichael left the Lowndes County area, they formed a militant group dubbed the Black Panthers, which veered some of the civil rights crusade down a violent path.

Al-Amin, who as known as H. Rap Brown, called violence ``as American as cherry pie,″ eventually served five years in prison for a robbery and shooting in New York.

``They went to California and saw the symbol of a black panther and everybody started calling them the Black Panthers,″ said Hulett, now Lowndes County’s probate judge.

Lowndes County is ``a very important place in black history,″ said Raymond Wolters, a University of Delaware history professor who specializes in race relations. ``Not only because of the Black Panther Party voting drives there in the ’60s, but long before that.″

Part of the county’s significance lies in its location _ squarely between Selma, in Dallas County, and the capital, Montgomery.

``It was the center of the voting rights agitation,″ Wolters said. ``There was a lot of groundwork before the voting rights movement took hold, and that groundwork really began in Lowndes County,″ Wolters said.

None of the first group of black candidates won their elections, but it set the stage for what was to come in the predominantly black county.

``We accomplished something by getting them on the ballot,″ said Hulett, sheriff from 1970 to 1992. ``We had a lot of people who couldn’t read or write, but they could go out and pull the lever.″