News & Politics

H. Rap Brown: “If You Can’t Give a Gun, Give a Dollar”


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November 2, 1967, Vol. XIII, No. 3

John Brown’s Roll to Rap Brown’s Rock
by Stephanie Harrington

Rap Brown talked to the honkies last Friday night. The occasion was the National Guardian’s 19th anniversary (and fundraising) meeting. And not only did SNCC’s chairman put on a suit and go to — of all places — the Americana Hotel and sit on the podium of the Imperial Ballroom where the band played for Abe Beame just two short years ago, not only did he talk to the white folks, but he actually sat through four speeches by whites (although one was Puerto Rican) in order to do so.

One couldn’t help wondering why. Was it because the white folks still have — if nothing else — some very material assets which, if catered to, they might contribute to the black revolution? Or perhaps this is too unfair, too cynical a supposition. Perhaps, as the black militants charge, the white press does nothing but misrepresent them, and all those reports of Brown refusing to address whites at the Chicago New Politics Conference were untrue. Perhaps there is nothing remarkable to all, except in paranoid white imaginings, about Rap Brown talking to an integrated audience.

Or maybe the reason for his presence last Friday was blacks “don’t need white liberals, we need revolutionaries.” Maybe in the 1200 or so pale faces before him he saw the makings of revolutionaries. After all, who knows what compelling passions lurk behind the middle-class facade. Look at Peyton Place.

Guardian staff writer Robert Allen noted the incongruity of the gathering and its setting — an incongruity underlined by the prominently displayed picture of Che Guevara, to whom the evening was dedicated. Allen, who gave a disappointingly spare report on his trip to North Vietnam, saying little else than that the will of of the people has not been broken and that “in North Vietnam the National Guardian is probably the most widely distributed and widely read American paper bar none,” also remarked that the victims of American imperialism might find it a little puzzling that “we who call ourselves American radicals or militants or progressives could meet in a place called the Imperial Ballroom of the Americana Hotel.” So he put forth “a modest proposal: for tonight we re-name this room the Che Guevara Room.”

Following the exorcism of the imperialist demons, the comments of Allen and Carl Davidson of SDS, the reading of a message from Juan Marie Bras of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, a lusty hustle for contributions to the Guardian led by publisher Carl Marzani, and an address by Clive Jenkins, a British union leader and left-wing member of the Labour Party (who urged the peoples of the U.S. and Britain to collaborate in order to defeat the collaboration between the two countries’ military-industrial-governmental complexes), Rap Brown finally rose to speak amid an enthusiastic semi-standing ovation.

He was in good form, and his cheerleaders, the black brothers in the audience, were in good voice. Together they got the place rocking and the white audience rolling. “The greatest problem affecting America today,” he revealed, “is not body odor or bad breath, but survival.” Then, in a more serious vein, he went on to observe that Langston Hughes’s poem about “A Dream Deferred” had remained unanswered until Watts; that whites still had a place in the struggle if they were not liberals but revolutionaries; that the movement is not merely one of blacks, but of Puerto Ricans and Indians and Mexican-Americans and all the oppressed; that his job is to organize the black community and the whites’ job is to organize poor whites in places like Appalachia.

Brown’s speaking style is a staccato, epigrammatic reaching for the punchy line, like: “The only difference between Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace is that one of ’em’s wife’s got cancer”; or calling Detroit “destroyit” and remarking that “people there were at home fighting rats, so they just went out into the streets to fight rats”; or recalling that he “saw a sign once that said, ‘I Wonder What Happened to Lee Harvey Oswald Now That We Need Him'” and adding that it was “probably written by Rockefeller.” This led into a denunciation of Standard Oil and Chase Manhattan and the rest of the ruling class, which, according to Brown, also includes Sonny and Cher. (You see, the property owners are the oppressors; ergo, when Sonny and Cher records hit the top of the charts, they automatically become the oppressors.)

…Perhaps the Americana audience didn’t take the anger too seriously because don’t really think America’s imperialist tendencies, the subject of denunciation by every speaker of the evening, are such a threat after all. Perhaps, deep down they don’t believe their own condemnations of the power structure or don’t think it would turn its repressive force against any real attempt at revolution at home and take blood for blood in the ghetto, while we watched it all on television. Otherwise how could they have applauded so loudly when Brown advised, “If you can’t give a gun, then give a dollar to someone who can buy a gun”?

At that suggestion, a fragile young blonde in a mini-skirt, a cross between Twiggy and Pat Boone, sitting beside her pipe-puffing, tweed-jacketed husband, clapped her slender hands so hard it seemed they would break. One couldn’t help wondering what she, or the other 1200 cheering middle-class whites, would have done if at that moment LeRoi Jones (who had just slipped into the room, dressed in a striking African tunic) had interrupted the proceedings to take up another collection, making it clear that this time around all contributions would be used for the purchase of firearms.

But there was no such acid test. The closest Brown came to challenging the whites in the audience was when he told them that the Third World rejected all white systems, not only capitalism, but socialism and communism as well. That was about his only statement that was not greeted with applause. In fact, it was greeted with almost complete silence. Brown did not pursue the subject. He could play his games, but, it seemed, Whitey still made the rules.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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