H.Rap Brown – in conversation with Mitchell Krauss – Newsfront – NET -November 21, 1968 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
The 60s were a decade of enormous upheaval in society. 1968 was something of a peak – it was a turning point in the Vietnam War, it was the year of assassinations, it was the year an entire country went on strike (France). It was the year America became more divided than ever and it was the year that issues of race came front and center.
For all the historic focus on protests to the Vietnam War, campus unrest and the Youth Vote, the Civil Rights movement underwent an enormous change and the shift to militancy was further proof that America was far from solving the issue of race, racism and prejudice. It was a simmering discontent that mere peaceful protest was making no difference and what was needed was the next logical step, echoed in the words “by any means necessary”.
One of the pivotal figures in the Black Power movement was H.Rap Brown. Brown was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He became known as H. Rap Brown during the early 1960s. His activism in the Civil Rights Movement included involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which he was named chairman in 1967. That same year, he was arrested in Cambridge, Maryland, and charged with inciting to riot after he gave a speech there.
Brown was introduced into SNCC by his older brother Ed. Rap first visited Cambridge with Cleveland Sellers in the summer of 1963 during the period of Gloria Richardson’s leadership in the local movement. He witnessed the first riot between blacks and whites in the city, and was impressed by the local civil rights movement’s willingness to use armed self-defense against racial attacks.
He later organized for SNCC during Mississippi Freedom Summer, while transferring his studies to Howard University. Representing Howard’s SNCC chapter, H.Rap Brown attended a contentious civil rights meeting at the White House with President Lyndon Johnson during the Selma crisis of 1965. In 1966, he organized for black voter registration and enforcement of the recently passed Voting Rights Act in Greene County, Alabama. Elected SNCC chairman in 1967, Brown continued Stokely Carmichael’s fiery support for “Black Power” and urban rebellions in the ghettos.
During the summer of 1967, Brown toured the nation, calling for violent resistance to the government, which he called “The Fourth Reich.” “Negroes should organize themselves,” he told a rally in Washington, D.C., and “carry on guerilla warfare in all the cities.” They should, “make the Viet Cong look like Sunday school teachers.” He declared, “I say to America, Fuck it! Freedom or death!”
In the late 1960s, Brown was tried on federal charges of inciting to riot and carrying a gun across state lines. A secret 1967 FBI memo called for “neutralizing” Brown and he was targeted by the COINTELPRO program at this time. The charges were never proven. His attorneys in the gun violation case were civil rights advocate Murphy Bell of Baton Rouge, the self described “radical lawyer” William Kunstler, and Howard Moore Jr., general counsel for SNCC. Feminist attorney Flo Kennedy also assisted Brown and led his defense committee, winning him support from some chapters of the National Organization for Women.
During his trial, Brown continued his high-profile activism. He accepted a request from the Student Afro-American Society of Columbia University to help represent and co-organize the April 1968 Columbia protests against university expansion into Harlem park land. He also contributed writing from prison to the radical magazine Black Mask which was edited and published by Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. In the article titled “H. Rap Brown From Prison: Lasime Tushinde Mbilashika”, Brown writes of going on hunger strike and his willingness to give up his life for change.
Brown is now known to have no direct relationship with the alleged riot of 1967. The head of the Cambridge police department, Brice Kinnamon, nonetheless claimed that the city had no racial problems, Brown was the “sole” cause of the disorder, and it was “a well-planned Communist attempt to overthrow the government.”
In November 1968, Brown consented to an interview with Mitchell Krauss for the NET (Pre-PBS) program Newsfront. By most accounts, the original video of this interview no longer exists, but all that has survived is this audio interview.
So as an example that history repeats and continues, as a sort of adjunct to our current climate and a reminder that the territory is familiar, here is that interview with H.Rap Brown with Mitchell Krauss from November 21, 1968.