October 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic and remarkable organizing initiative to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Dr. Harry Edwards led the boycott efforts, as well as the creation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, in which he involved countless Black activists from throughout the country, including H. Rap Brown.
On Oct. 21, 2018, I was fortunate to interview Dr. Edwards about his 1968 organizing efforts and his affiliation with H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Al-Amin) who also played a leading and inspirational role in this historic 1968 event.
Below is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Edwards:
H. Rap Brown ultimately took the name of Jamil Al-Amin and, as a Muslim leader, was the influential imam in Atlanta’s West End, where he consistently attempted, among other missions, to end the drug invasion in the West End community. Then, in 2000, an Atlanta policeman was killed and Al-Amin was accused of this crime, yet all the indications are that he was not the killer. In fact, another individual, named Otis Jackson, confessed to be the shooter on the evening of March 16, 2000, and yet this was never introduced at trial by the prosecution or defense. Otis Jackson continues to maintain that he was the assailant.
When Jamil Al-Amin was first in prison in Atlanta for this alleged crime, I visited him briefly, along with Alabama attorney J.L. Chestnut, who had been defending Al-Amin while he was in Alabama just after the killing of the Atlanta policeman.
During the 2002 trial, which ended in the conviction of Jamil Al-Amin, we consistently held radio shows on WRFG-Atlanta, along with Al-Amin’s brother, Ed Brown, regarding updates of the trial, and many of us, including myself, were observers in the courtroom.
Al-Amin is now in the United States Prison (USP) in Tucson, Arizona, where he is housed in the general population. He continues to declare his innocence, and supporters are advocating for his return to a Georgia facility where he will finally be able to visit with his family and friends.
At the end of the transcription is a brief biography of Dr. Edwards, the link to a compilation of articles about Jamil Al-Amin, as well as the listing of the four requests made of the Olympic Committee by the ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’.
Interview with Dr. Harry Edwards
Harry Edwards: Let me talk about Rap and my motivation for bringing him into this situation. In 1964, when I graduated from San Jose State University, I had the options of going into the National Football League (NFL) draft or the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft or even sticking around and preparing for the ‘64 Olympics, as I had thrown the discus far enough to qualify for the trials. But I had a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to Cornell University, which, in point of fact, paid more. So that’s the option that I took.
And while I was there, I wrote my Master’s thesis on the Black Muslim family. And some of the people that I interviewed were part of Malcolm X’s group down in New York City. So I became very much influenced after listening to Malcolm and really coming to understand the extent to which he had literally changed his perspective and paradigm relative to his analysis of African-American circumstances in this country.
And there were two points that he made that really stuck with me. The first was that we had to move from a focus on “civil rights” to “human rights,” because that broadened our basis of not just protest but of alliance possibilities. Because, if we focus on civil rights, we’re stuck within the context of the American judicial political system. But, if we begin to talk about human rights, then that puts us on the same level and the same forum with other human beings on this earth.
The second point that Malcolm made, so clearly, was that the extent to which we were going to be able to make any progress was going to be dependent upon the extent to which there was unity among those who were struggling in this country – especially African-American groups – and not “uniformity” but “unity.” We could all be coming from different aspects of the struggle, but there had to be some “unity” in terms of how we projected that protest power.
And so the notion of “human rights” led me to term the struggle in sports the Olympic Project for Human Rights. And this notion of unity led me to try to broaden the bases of struggle. One of the key people in that whole process was H. Rap Brown.
If you recall back at that time, in 1967-68, Dr. (Martin Luther) King was on the outs with virtually everybody. The more impatient, younger, more militant people involved in the struggle had even started calling him the “Lawd” because he spoke and people responded, oftentimes, unquestioningly. But many young people were beginning to question both the non-violent method as well as the goal of desegregation, which left Black communities literally stranded and isolated and devoid of their leadership structure.
Institutions within the Black community began to collapse, as the middle classes and higher levels of social economic order in American society, including Black society, began to move into and onto the periphery of institutions in the white society. So Black restaurants, Black hotels, Black schools, Black newspapers and most certainly Blacks involved in sports, such as the Negro leagues – all of that began to collapse
And so, there was this young militant group moving into a new direction and a different paradigm than Dr. King. And then the mainstream that had been so supportive of him, particularly the economic structures and the unions and some liberal government interests and even the other Black churches and pastors began to turn away from him because of his outspokenness about the Vietnam War. They thought he had got out of his lane and was bringing undue pressure on the civil rights movement as a consequence, and they were suffering as well as him. So, they had turned on him.
But Dr. King wanted to begin to pool these pieces back together. And, so, one of the things that I did was to get in touch with Dr. King through my good friend Louis Lomax and set up a meeting where we could talk about his endorsement possibilities, as far as he was concerned, of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.”
And I also got in touch with Rap.
I had been working with Ralph Featherstone, in point of fact, since February to endorse the Olympic Project for Human Rights. So, my goal with the Olympic Project for Human Rights was to bring in SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), to bring in the Black Panther Party, which I was a member of, and Huey Newton, Bobby Seale; to bring in Dr. King and Floyd McKissik – to bring in all of these interests around the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
The person, the catalyst in terms of the more militant youthful groups, was H. Rap Brown. Because Rap, at that point in 1968, was the chair of SNCC and probably the most militant face and profile of the younger Black movement in this country. So when he signed off on the boycott of the New York Athletic Club – when he signed off on the Olympic Project for Human Rights – it made it possible for everybody else on that side of the civil rights divide to line up behind the movement.
And then, of course, when Dr. King signed off, that brought in Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality and a number of other groups who were more traditionally establishment civil rights leaders.
So, Rap played a critical role in terms of bringing that unity that Malcolm had discussed, at least around this one issue of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was an important starting point, I felt.
I was involved with Rap, in point of fact, before he went to prison the first time around the situation in New York City. I was a graduate student at Cornell University and I would come down to New York City to do research and various other activities in the city and a lot of times Rap would pick me up at the airport.
But he and James Forman and Stokely Carmichael were major factors in me framing up the possibilities in terms of political leverage using sports to bring more people into a circle of understanding about what our obligations were.
We could not allow these athletes who had this tremendous forum … this tremendous megaphone … to simply stand out there and continually salute the flag as our churches were being bombed, as our leaders were being shot down, as our children and old Black women were being dribbled down the street like basketballs with firehouses that were so powerful they could take the bark off of trees. Athletes with that great forum had to stand up and say essentially, “We’re better than this.”
And, so, to galvanize people around that idea and who had not seen sports in exactly that framework, was critical. And Rap was one of the early people – early on individuals – who understood that.
But, of course, Rap was an athlete himself. A lot of people think that Kaepernick was the first Black quarterback to become politicized and to militantly assault racism and injustice in the American society. But the first Black quarterback to do that, that I knew, was H. Rap Brown, who had gone to Southern University on a scholarship, before he joined SNCC, and began to really become active in the movement.
He was a heck of an athlete. Rap loved to play basketball, play football – he was in sports just like he was in life. He went out to win – to get things done.
So, he was the first Black quarterback that I knew who became actively involved in the movement and literally set sports aside so that he could do that.
Heather Gray: Given all the activism all of you and others were engaged in, how is it expressed in today’s world?
Edwards: Well, first of all, the fact that 50 years after the Olympic Project for Human Rights, not only is it being talked about, it’s actually being commemorated and celebrated all over the world. We just finished a program at San Jose State University where there’s a 30-foot statue of Smith and Carlos on the campus. But there were people in from Germany, South Africa, Mexico – of course, Italy, France, Brazil. I mean there were people there from all over the world to cover it.
We had many of the people involved in that movement on the stage and involved in panels including John Carlos and Tommy Smith, and people like Spencer Haywood and most certainly Wyomia Tyus and others. So they can go and look at that. But the fact that we’re talking about it 50 years later means that it had an impact.
The thing with regard to H. Rap Brown was that, like Malcolm, Rap continued to evolve. He continued to evolve his knowledge and understanding and so forth of the movement and challenges that are involved. Most people have no idea of what happened to him after the 1960s. But Rap, of course, was a central figure of focus in J. Edward Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, as was I and Stokely Carmichael and a lot of other people.
But he changed his name (to Jamil Al-Amin). Changed in terms of developing a religious focus. And a lot of people who knew him as H. Rap Brown kind of got lost in the tradewinds of change and have no idea what happened to him or where he is today.
Gray: Why do you think H. Rap Brown changed?
Edwards: Well, I think that we all change. The issue becomes whether we’re developing in a positive direction.
It’s like I tell people about the whole notion of progress in society or in the struggle. Progress is one of those concepts that’s a lot like profit. At one point it comes down to who’s keeping the books. And it’s the same with regard to individual development and progress. At some point it comes down to who’s writing the biography. And if nothing is being written of it in bits and pieces, or nothing at all, you don’t get the full story as to what is happening in a person’s life or the impact that they might be having today as a consequence of the changes that have taken place.
But we all change. The issue is whether our lives are being directed by us to the extent that that is possible or whether our lives are something that is evolving while we’re doing something else.
I think that Rap was on top of the evolution in his life. I think that he had a very good idea of the direction that he was moving in and what he wanted to do. I think that the discipline of Islam, and the very way that it allowed him to frame up increasingly more complicated developments, born as much of the successes of the 1960s as of the failures. I think that all of that propelled him in a different direction than where he was going when he was H. Rap Brown and chairman of SNCC.
Gray: So I want to mention, you have made reference to the fact that Nelson Mandela had a copy of the flier you all developed in the 1968 for the Olympic event. Apparently, someone was able to smuggle that flier into his cell while he was imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa. When I was in South Africa a few years ago, I was able to visit Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. I was also fortunate to be in South Africa when Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 and he had some of the white prison guards from Robben Island on the platform with him because he had such a profound influence on everyone around him, including other inmates and the guards as well.
Now, attorney J.L. Chestnut from Alabama, who was always assisting H. Rap Brown in the 1960s when Rap was arrested sometimes during the ‘60s movement, told me that the authorities in Alabama were always nervous about Rap when he was in prison. This is because he always had such a profound impact on the inmates and guards around him. That is still in effect today because Federal Bureau of Prisons also gets really nervous about Jamil mixing too much with the general prison population, as well as with the guards. So it’s just on-going, Dr. Edwards.
Edwards: Absolutely. Of course, any time you have someone of that stature and that clarity of mind in terms of who they are and what they are about, it becomes a threat to a system where the basic guideline is “control.” And, so, if they want to maintain maximum control, they do what they have done in this case, which is to eliminate all interview possibilities. It’s virtually impossible to get a letter into Jamil in this situation. And it’s one of the ways that the system controls people that it determines to be an on-going and palpable threat.
Gray: So why are the government entities nervous about someone like Jamil Al-Amin?
Edwards: Well, the problem that the system has is that it can allow an individual to be free and to speak or they can lock him down or her down in total isolation and so forth. If they allow them to be free to speak and to organize and so forth, then they have a problem because there can be influence in that regard. And so you have these kinds of efforts to isolate and eliminate their legitimacy, as happened with Paul Robeson, as is happening now with Colin Kaepernick.
Or you can lock them down, but under those circumstances you create a martyr. So the only way that you can kind of slow down the martyrdom is to totally isolate this person – no contact, no discussion, no information. So then isolated people will not know what’s going on, what others are thinking, what they’re doing, and over a period of time a person can become so isolated, so insulated, so incapsulated that they actually lose contact with the linguistic currency of the current era.
They can’t even speak to people of the Gen Generation or the X Generation or the Boomerang Generation or whatever they want to call the current group of young up and coming activists. They lose contact. They lose access to the linguistic currency necessary to communicate with them. And that’s the hope of the system.
That’s what total isolation can do where they control your reading materials, what you can listen to on the radio or watch on the television set. They control who can send you letters; they control letters you can send out. And the next thing you know, somebody who has been isolated has lost touch and contact with the broader masses of people who they would influence and who would benefit from their wisdom and knowledge.
So that is the kind of struggle that takes place when you have somebody like Jamil in this kind of a total lockdown set of circumstances.
Gray: So I guess the assumption is basically that the powers that be, whether it’s J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, COINTELPRO or the present United States government overall, they want to continue this oppression of people. They want to be able to control them the way they want.
Edwards: Absolutely. And even in the age of the internet and the social media, there is still concern about the management of information. And that becomes a real challenge for anyone who they would oppress today. So they can lock an individual down – that takes place – but more in the boarder spectrum of things, since they can’t totally manage information in the age of social media and the internet, there’s a reliance on fake information.
We have a president who is a pathological liar – a morally malignant degenerate – but he continues to put out this information that paints everybody else as fake and lying and so forth. So that’s what they’ve been driven to in this age as the consequence of the social media. But where they can, they will lock people down, isolate them, cut them off. And, unfortunately, that’s what’s happening to Jamil.
Gray: I also want to ask you what we can share with others as well, what can be inspirational as far as learning more about Jamil and his impact on the United States, but on the world as far as international justice is concerned. So how would you summarize that? What would you tell the people about him to learn from him and be inspired?
Edwards: The first thing that I would tell them is to follow the direction of Malcolm X. Malcolm said that the reading and study of history is the greatest of all endeavors because it allows you to frame up how we got to where we are. I would have them go online – one of the great benefits of the social media – and dig up everything they possible could about H. Rap Brown and about the man that he evolved into.
The second thing that I would suggest is that people understand something that Rap Brown told me over half a century ago, and that is there are no messiahs, because individuals never survive – only the people and the struggle survive.
And a point that he made is something that I continue to reiterate, and that is that there are no final victories. Not only should we not be looking for a messiah, who has all of the answers and who’s going to lead us out of this wilderness, but there are no final victories. It is going to be up to every generation to fight their battles, and not just because they’re the battles they are confronted with. But if they if they do not, then the next generation will not only have to fight its battles, but it will have to fight the battles that the last generation should have fought.
And never ever get into a frame of mind where you think that because you have won a battle, that somehow that is permanent and unchanging. We are fighting now voter suppression in the face of having achieved the Voting Rights Act; we’re dealing with medical services for women in the face of having achieved Roe v. Wade and all these other things. We are going back and again battling over a terrain that many people thought conquered.
So, there are no final victories. There are no messiahs. There are just those who are committed to fighting the battle, and I think that is what H. Rap Brown and his evolution is indicative of.
I watched Malcolm X – he evolved. I watched Dr. King evolve. In the end he was talking about economic development. He died in the struggle for economic development in Memphis. He was talking about anti-war measures. I watched Dr. King evolve.
So, everybody has to evolve not just in terms generationally but individually. That’s the model. That’s the lesson that we can learn from studying the life of H. Rap Brown and the individual, the man who he evolved into.
Gray: One of the things that, in the movement, people were evolving to engage in was “human rights.” Could you please explain that again? What specifically is human rights?
Edwards: As long as we were talking about civil rights, if it was on the books, it was done. Then it comes down to going down to vote. Then it comes down to going out to buy a home. Then it comes down to going to this school rather than the school that you were restricted to. That’s civil rights.
Human rights has to do with the respect and dignity of the individual. It goes beyond civil rights. It goes to the issue of having the right to live and walk on this earth with the dignity of a human being. So, this comes down to being able to have safety in your home. Being able to have nutritional necessities met.
I was speaking at a campus this week where students regularly have to choose between books and breakfast, in the richest country on earth.
Being able to have nutritional security in America should be a human right.
Health care should be a human right.
Being able to walk the streets of any community in this country should be a human right.
It is not a matter of civil rights that 147 Black men, women and children are summarily executed in the streets of this country every year by police. That’s an issue of human rights.
And so the issue of human rights, as Malcolm X pointed out as early as 1964, goes beyond what’s on the books in terms of civil rights. It goes down to the dignity and respect and stature of a human being – on this planet, in this country, at this time – and so the impact of the struggle for human rights encompasses civil rights, but it goes so much beyond that. And it involves all groups.
When we talk about civil rights, we tend to talk about “Black” civil rights. Black right to vote. Black right to housing equity. Black right to healthcare.
When we talk about human rights, we’re talking about women, we’re talking about students on campuses across this country. We’re talking about old folks and their right to live out their lives in dignity and so forth. We’re talking about women’s rights to hold a job without being sexually harassed and being able to walk the streets without feeling threatened in their very person because they are women.
When we are talking about human rights, we are talking about the fact that a lot of what happens to Black women doesn’t happen to them because they are Black, it happens to them because they are women. And that’s a human concern that we have to have.
And so I think that when we talk about human rights, when we expand our struggle, as we tried to do with the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968 that Rap Brown was so much a part of in bringing in the militant youth movement in alliance with Dr. King and Floyd McKissick and the Congress of Racial Equality. We’re talking about where we need to go with the movement in this country. And it also ties into something that James Baldwin said.
James Baldwin wrote a book in 1962 called “The Fire Next Time,” and in there he said, “We must be visionary enough, we must have the will, and we must have the wisdom to include everybody in our strategies for change because, to the extent that we do not, then we are once again destined to fulfill those words from the Bible, put to song by a slave, ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water. The fire next time.’”
And because the movement, which had been established in the civil rights movement, left so many Black people behind in places like Watts and the Southside of Chicago and so forth – Baldwin wrote that book in 1962 and, in 1965, Watts exploded.
So, we have to understand that we now have to begin to talk about human rights, as Rap Brown did 50 years ago, as the Olympic Project on Human Rights focused on 50 years ago, as Malcolm X spoke of over 50 years ago, as Dr. King was moving toward when he started talking about economic rights and the war in Vietnam and so forth 50 years ago.
So that struggle continues. And the individual that was Rap Brown, who is now Jamil Al-Amin, is as much at the center of that struggle today as he was then.
Gray: Dr. Harry Edwards, I want to thank you so much. And as the South Africans always say, “A luta continua” – the struggle continues – which is what you are saying as well.
About Dr. Harry Edwards
Sociology professor and civic activist Harry Edwards was born in 1942 in East St. Louis, Illinois, to Harry and Adelaide Edwards. Edwards grew up in East St. Louis as the second child in a family of eight children. He attended the newly integrated East St. Louis Senior High School, where he excelled in sports.
After graduating from high school in 1960, Edwards moved to California, where he attended Fresno City College. Edwards then transferred to San Jose State University, where he majored in sociology and graduated summa cum laude with his B.A. degree in sociology in 1964. In 1966, Edwards went on to receive his M.A. degree in sociology from Cornell University, where he was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. In 1970, he received his Ph.D. degree in sociology from Cornell University, where he helped to found United Black Students for Action and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Due to his negative experiences as a student athlete on predominately white university campuses, Edwards became heavily involved in exposing the relationship between race and sports in society. By the late 1960s, Edwards began actively organizing protests and demonstrations like the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute at Mexico City involving John Carlos, Peter Norman and Tommie Smith. (The History Makers)
The Olympic Project for Human Rights had Four Central Demands:
- restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title;
- remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC);
- hire more African American coaches;
- and disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics.
Ali’s belt had been taken by boxing’s powers that be earlier in the year for his resistance to the Vietnam draft. By standing with Ali, OPHR was expressing its opposition to the war.
By calling for the hiring of more African American coaches as well as the ouster of Brundage, they were dragging out of the shadows a part of Olympic history those in power wanted to bury. Brundage was an anti-Semite and a white supremacist, best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler’s hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
By demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia, they aimed to convey their internationalism and solidarity with the Black freedom struggles against apartheid in Africa.
Part One: “About Jamil Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown,” published June 30, 2018
Part Two: “About Jamil Al-Amin with Wendell Paris,” published July 1, 2018
Part Three: “The Unofficial Gag Order of Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown): 16 Years in Prison, Still Not Allowed to Speak,” published July 3, 2018
Part Four: “End the Isolation of Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown): Open Letter to the Bureau of Prisons and State of Georgia by Concerned Academics,” published July 5, 2018
Part Five: “H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin: A Profoundly American Story,” published July 7, 2018
Part Six: “The Quakers about Jamil Al-Amin: An Appeal to John Lewis,” published Aug. 16, 2018
Heather Gray, producer of Just Peace on WRFG-FM in Atlanta, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not published on a website, but in email alerts headed Justice Initiative here and here.