The Fourth of July is my birthday. Each year, I seek an activity which expounds on Frederick
Sister Karima Al-Amin
New Trend Exclusive: By Nadrat Siddique
Douglass’ renowned musing “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and my social consciousness as a Muslim. This Fourth, I visited Atlanta to run the Peachtree 10K race, the nation’s largest 10K (it boasts 50,000 participants) and to interview Karima El-Amin, wife of Imam Jamil El-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown).
Imam Jamil El-Amin is one of America’s foremost political prisoners, currently being held at the infamous high security prison in Florence, Colorado. I felt his case had received a degree of exposure, at least by independent Islamic media, but that far less was known about his wife and partner in the struggle, an activist in her own right.
Karima El-Amin graciously granted me an interview at short notice, even though it meant according me her scant leisure time (the holiday was one of those rare occasions on which she closed her law office). I was to meet her soon after my race. When I called to confirm the details of our meeting, she expressed concern for my condition. Was I too tired and dehydrated after the race, being unaccustomed to Atlanta weather? And did I require more time to rest before our meeting? I was reminded of Imam Jamil, whose self-less concern for his visitors to the prison—even while he himself was being subjected to daily humiliation at the hands of prison guards—was fabled. And—she insisted she would drive to my hotel so that I would not have to attempt to navigate unfamiliar territory. We agreed to hold the interview in my hotel room.
She entered the room, a slender, bespectacled woman, with quiet manner and majestic bearing, dressed modestly in light green hijab. But, as she began to speak, I realized this was easily the most eloquent, self-confident, and politically aware Muslim woman I’d encountered. She was clearly very steeped in Islamic faith; indeed, it may have been what allowed her (and hence her family) to survive the incredible trials they’d experienced; yet she was not ostentatious with her Arabic, nor haughty or judgmental of me or others.
Q: How did you meet Imam Jamil, and what attracted you to him initially?
I met him July 31, 1967. I remember that day because it was the first day I had a job. I had just graduated from the State University of Oswego. I was there four years. I majored in English with the aim of teaching K - 9th grades.
Imam Jamil walked into the job. He was staying with my supervisor. The job was on 131st Street. It was with Job Corps. I thought I’d keep the job a while.
The Imam walked in. At the time, he had a cadre of bodyguards. He was meeting Minister Farrakhan. He asked the secretary “See if she’ll go to lunch with us.” I was the only female at a big table of only brothers. It was a big, big table. We got back at 5 PM.
That evening, Nina Simone was performing. She had invited Imam Jamil. In later years, he kept in touch with her. She autographed a photo for him that night, which I still have.
Q: Tell me about yourself and your background.
My grandmother and mother were Canadian. In 1929, my grandmother brought my mother, her sister, and her brother to the U.S. They were deported.
In 1929, my grandmother divorced my grandfather. Then, in 1938, my grandmother went before a judge to ask for her citizenship. By 1942, my mother’s sister had married. Her husband was in the entertainment business. He wrote “Dark Town Strutters Ball.” She was a little activist and traveled broadly.
My mother lived in the building where La Guardia, Duke Ellington, and other musicians lived. My father was from the U.S. (from Virginia), and was in the navy. He and my mother married. I was born in New York.
We lived in Harlem on Fifth Avenue. We moved to Riverton, which was built for Metropolitan Life Insurance. African Americans were putting in to live in these homes.
Mother was going to do a class action suit to live there. My mother and father moved there. I went to school in Harlem. My mother was involved in the PTA.
That was the first time the FBI came to the house, because my mother was involved in zoning issues. They thought the communists must be behind this. We thought they were taking mother away.
We would go back and forth to Canada. Father didn’t want to tell a fib, so when they asked him is everyone in the car a U.S. citizen, he would tell them my mother was not.
My mother is from Hamilton, Canada. We’re actually the descendents of runaway slaves.
My mother’s sister is doing a project to find out where in Africa we’re from. She has not been successful yet.
My mother, after 30 years of being a housewife, went for a job with the NAACP. Thurgood Marshall was the head of it. He wanted her to be in charge of payroll. To do this, she had to be bonded. Thurgood Marshall sponsored my mother to this end. I became the baby sitter for Thurgood Marshall and various African American judges of the Legal Defense Fund (NAACP legal arm).
Mother would tell everyone to put their dresses on, we’re going to the Apollo. During the intermission, she would collect money for whichever case was being fought at the time.
Q: What led to your personal involvement in the Black Liberation struggle?
In college, I got involved with Friends of SNCC. That should have told me I’d wind up with the chair of SNCC.
I graduated in June and met Imam Jamil in July. My sister and her husband got arrested. They were with RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement). This was the first case in which middle class African Americans were involved in supporting the Black Liberation struggle.
RAM is mentioned in the original COINTELPRO papers. SNCC, RAM, Stokely, etc., are all mentioned. My husband went to rally for RAM. My sister and her husband didn’t go.
By August, the FBI had contacted me. They said, “You know your sister was framed. If you help us, we’ll clear her.” I told them I knew she’d be cleared because she was framed.
My parents were very involved with the community. We were a close knit family. I had a non-traumatic childhood (other than the fact that I was almost electrocuted). We did not go without anything. We traveled a lot. My father helped form an organization for African American city workers in transit.
My first trip to the South was in 1959. I went shopping with a girlfriend of mine. I was looking at earrings. I went to hand money to one of the workers. She threw the money on the floor. Later, I was trying to buy a hotdog. They would not sell it to me, because the hotdog stand was “Whites Only.” Up in New York, we protested White Castle (fast food establishment).
My mother was very proper. When my husband’s book came out, she would not say the name of the book, because it was called Die Nigger Die.
The FBI hounded my parents. They went to my father’s job repeatedly. Despite this, my parents continued to be very supportive. I came from very smart, compassionate parents. They both died young (at age 51). One day, we went to the grocery store. When we came out, we found our car had a flat tire. We said, “Oh FBI.”
Not long after, my father stopped at a gas station to fix a flat tire. He collapsed and died. Imam Jamil’s mother died the week after that. Then, my mother went into the hospital. They discovered an aneurism on the right side of her brain. Then, they located another on the left. Then, in October, Imam Jamil was shot. He was in the room next to my mother. She died right there. All this happened in one year. We just didn’t have time for grieving.
(To be continued)