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As American as cherry pie 

Al-Amin's journey from militant activist to West End imam traces the country's struggles over racism, anger, violence and civil rights

The dogs picked up the trail and started running. They were looking for him, had already caught his scent. Through the swamp and thicket the bloodhound and the three beagles pressed their noses to the ground and ran. They were getting closer.

He was running, and he was as used to it as the dogs. The chase, for all of them, was instinct. He'd often been hunted -- since 1966, at least. And the dogs, or whoever was following him, always sensed how to track down the hunted.

Many of his pursuers over the years -- the FBI and a president included -- could boast of having caught him. But none could claim to have stopped him for good. Not after the riot in Cambridge, Md., when the elementary school burned down and the authorities pinned the riot on him. Not after the federal firearms charge in Louisiana, when they said he broke a law that he said he didn't know existed. Not after the shootout in a New York bar, in which he claims the government exaggerated his involvement. And not now, after a cop lay dead in Atlanta and he, the suspect, was laying low in White Hall, Ala. Or trying to.

He was running just south of the railroad tracks, along Big Swamp Creek toward the Baptist church. He had just crossed the paved road, which runs between a dusty general store and a two-room brick building marked "City Hall." That's pretty much the bulk of White Hall. It's so sparse there's scarcely a phrase to describe it. Flat. Partly wooded. Boxed in by a swamp, a weed-torn graveyard, a mammoth dam and state Highway 80.

He's running through it, and it wasn't so different than it was when he first laid eyes on it 34 years earlier.

He was running then, too.

Like most of Alabama in the 1960s, White Hall was ripe for progress. The bus boycott turned Montgomery upside down. The Freedom March spun Selma 180 degrees. And student activists flooded into the small towns in between, urging rural blacks to exercise a right they had long been denied: to vote.

Among the influx was 23-year-old Hubert Gerold Brown. Brown, the son of an oil company worker and an orphanage teacher, started college in 1960 at Southern University, in his native Baton Rouge, La. But he tired of comparing Southern to its all-white and better-kept neighbor, Louisiana State University. "I could see that big fine school with modern buildings and it was for whites," Brown would write in his 1969 autobiography. "Then there was Southern University, which was about to fall in and that was for the niggers. ... [T]he message that the white man was trying to get across was obvious. Nigger, you ain't shit. Die Nigger Die!"

Not the most subtle wordsmith. But Brown's radicalism would help rather than hinder his goals. At least for a while.

It was a radicalism hardly fanatical when you consider where he grew up and when. "We're fighting for our survival and for this we are called criminals, outlaws and murderers," he wrote in a letter to fellow civil rights activists after he was jailed for inciting the Cambridge riot. "Who are the real criminals? Who stole us from Africa? Who has been stealing our labor for the past 400 years to build this country?"

Since he was a teenager, friends had called him "Rap" for his ability to express his views, rooted in intellect and exuding street appeal. But he didn't find much of an audience at Southern, where he thought his fellow students were too complacent.

His talents were welcome elsewhere.

He moved to Washington, D.C., where his older brother Ed was attending Howard University. He found himself so much in the element he sought that he was speechless. "We were working with the people, organizing, going to meetings," he writes of his first years in D.C. "I was still just listening. ... I hadn't been accustomed to talking out in public." That would change. Not only were students willing to speak out against the injustices against blacks; they were willing to act. He was ready to join them.

In 1966, H. Rap Brown enlisted with the Movement. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). Unlike the average student-run organization, especially one with so stolid a title, SNCC brought about real change.

SNCC grew out of the nonviolent wing of the Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. Originally, they were a conciliatory bunch. Among the early leaders were Julian Bond, who went on to become chairman of the NAACP, and John Lewis, who now represents Atlanta in Congress. Lewis suffered beatings and risked his life protesting racism and segregation. But neither he nor Bond argued that brute force was an option.

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