James Brown & His Changing Times
As Vice President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey should have known better. Don’t mess with Soul Brother Number One.
James Brown was just across the room. It’s May ’68. He’s dining as a guest of President Lyndon Johnson at a White House state dinner. The president left a note on Brown’s place card that said, “Thanks much for what you are doing for your country. LBJ.”
In his autobiography, James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, Brown noted Johnson had little to say that night, choosing to concentrate on his food. “He was hungry,” wrote Brown.
But Humphrey wanted to speak with Brown, sending a Secret Service man to Brown’s table. “The Vice President of the United States would like to see you at his table,” the messenger said. Brown recalled that sounded like an order. His reply was, “Please tell the vice president that James Brown is not his boy. I will not walk across the room to his table.” Brown said that “really shook up” the Secret Service man. But then he offered a big smile, saying he’d meet Humphrey halfway.
Upon receiving the message, Humphrey caught Brown’s eye and started laughing. They met halfway. Brown made his point. He wasn’t anyone’s boy.
James Brown had struck up a friendship with Humphrey a year and a half earlier upon launching his stay-in-school campaign. Humphrey received Brown and the first copy of his single, “Don’t Be A Drop-Out” at The White House in October ’66. The campaign was indicative of Brown’s self-styled activism during a tumultuous era. He wasn’t content to simply lend his name to a cause. Brown spoke at high schools, promoting education as the way out of poverty. Scholarships were granted. He spoke with public officials, seeking their support.
It was a diverse group of leaders, in and out of politics, that met with James Brown: Humphrey, Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Richard Nixon, SNCC’s H. Rap Brown, Boston Mayor Kevin White, Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. It isn’t likely those people would have ever attended the same cocktail party, but each would eventually reach out to James Brown. Some would really need his help.
It was the difficulty Boston Mayor Kevin White faced on Friday, April 5, 1968, the day after Dr. King’s murder, that led to his association with James Brown. In his book, The Hardest Working Man, How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America, James Sullivan reports on that tense day. Brown was scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden that night, but given the riots in several American cities upon King’s death the night before, some, including the venue’s management, favored postponing the concert.
There were acts of violence and looting in Boston on the night of the King shooting, but the city did not experience the riots like those that occurred elsewhere. Still, Boston’s leaders worried over what would happen on Friday night and the rest of the weekend. Postponing a concert by one of the most popular black performers in the country on that particular night would be an insensitive and foolhardy act. Without getting bogged down in minutia, Sullivan details the backstage negotiations, often terse, between Brown and the city, allowing the show to go on, be broadcast live and shown again that night on Boston’s WGBH.
Brown gave a stellar performance, spoke to the audience about honoring the memory of Dr. King, and in a gesture of goodwill, introduced Kevin White to the audience, referring to the mayor as “a swinging cat,” one worthy of their support.
In his autobiography, Brown wrote of the relief felt in Boston as the city “got through the weekend almost without any trouble at all.”
But the weekend’s work wasn’t over for Brown. On Saturday morning he responded to requests from Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Walter Washington and other officials concerned over the rioting there. It was hoped Brown could reach the people with a plea to end the violence. He received similar requests from other cities but decided to go to D.C. “because it was really the symbol of the whole country.” What he saw in the nation’s capitol shook him.
I couldn’t believe the destruction: buildings smoking, smashed glass all over the streets, stores with their windows busted out…..”Soul Brother” was written on many black-owned stores to protect them, but in a lot of cases, it didn’t do any good. They were looted, too. What disturbed me most was the people dying. I didn’t want to see any more people die, white or black.
Brown went on live television from the Municipal Center. He conveyed his empathy to the angered Washingtonians, saying he felt the same way, but that nothing could be accomplished “by blowing up, burning up, stealing and looting.” He started rapping in that James Brown style.
Don’t terrorize. Organize. Don’t burn. Give kids a chance to learn. Go home. Look at TV. Listen to the radio. Listen to some James Brown records. The real answer to the problems in this country is education. Not burning and killing. Be ready. Be qualified. Own something. Be somebody. That’s Black Power.
He called on people to honor Dr. King because he was their “hero.” He stated they had “an obligation to fulfill his dream of true brotherhood. You can’t do that with violence.” Brown continued his appeals later on WOL radio. Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, and her daughter, Luci Baines Nugent, called him to say thanks.
James Brown, who grew up in Augusta, Georgia, was doing what he could to honor a fellow Georgian, Martin Luther King, Jr., who would be buried in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 9. Sadly, another Georgian, the state’s Governor, Lester Maddox, was doing all he could to impugn King’s life. He rejected a request from the Georgia Teachers and Education Association to close schools on the day of the funeral. He ranted over having to lower the national and state flags to half-staff. He declared in an interview that “I don’t think we oughta use our flag to honor an enemy of our country.”
But deriding King and others advocating civil rights was nothing new for the boisterous segregationist. He rose to political power in Georgia by speaking out against “ungodly race-mixing.” In 1965 he placed one of his weekly ads in The Atlanta Constitution ostensibly to promote his Atlanta restaurant, The Pickrick. But he also used a lot of the ad space to inveigh against The Civil Rights Act of 1964. He claimed the legislation “had the full support of the Communists. It was their pet project for many years. They were determined that it should pass even though it was un-Constitutional, because they knew that through such legislation they could wipe out private property rights and in so doing it was their sure way to destroy freedom and liberty in America.” After that mouthful, Maddox followed with The Pickrick‘s Sunday menu selections.
Running for Governor in September ’66, he spoke before a group in suburban Cobb County, just west of Atlanta. Maddox made clear his contempt for Dr. King’s freedom and liberty by saying, “When I get elected, we’re going to run him out of the state for good.”
The man Lester Maddox loved to hate was gone, but on the day of King’s funeral, he was still consumed by fear and loathing. According to the late Bruce Galphin, author of The Riddle of Lester Maddox, the governor acted “like a man bordering on terror.” Gary M. Pomerantz, in his book, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, provides a vivid description of Governor Maddox on the day he decided state government would operate as usual.
One hundred and sixty state troopers surrounded Maddox at the State Capitol. “We were told,” Maddox recalls, that there were approximately 150,000 people in town that were coming by the Capitol and that their intention… was to storm the capitol.” Maddox decided to keep the Capitol open, but well protected. He told intelligence sources, “If they do storm the Capitol, they had better be prepared to meet their maker!”
The thousands in the funeral procession marched right past the State Capitol. There was no storming of the capitol steps. Those thousands honored the life and spirit of Dr. King, all the while making Lester Maddox seem as irrelevant as he was coldhearted.
Relevant or not, Georgians still had to suffer through the next 32 months Maddox had in office. He was an embarrassment to the state, tarnishing a progressive image established in the capitol city of Atlanta. Other cities in the state also faced racial challenges, and they were without the moderating influences Atlanta relied upon. One such city was Augusta. Riots broke out in May ’70 over the killing of a 16 year old black male in the Richmond County Jail. Anger in the black community had gone beyond the boiling point. Many blacks believed the young man had been beaten to death by the jail’s guards. The Sheriff said two cell mates did it, beating him with a shoe and a belt and banging his head against the wall. If that was the case, blacks in Augusta blamed the authorities for allowing it to happen. Peaceful protests quickly turned into riots. There was arson. There was looting. The National Guard was called in. Time magazine reported that Charles Reid, a member of a committee formed by the Augusta mayor, witnessed a suspected looter being repeatedly shot in the back by a black policeman and his white partner. Eventually six black men would be shot and killed in the riots. 51 businesses would be destroyed by fire. As Governor, Lester Maddox had to restore order, but he needed help. He called on Soul Brother Number One.
Flying into Augusta, James Brown saw the clouds of smoke emanating from the flames set downtown. The scene reminded him of what he saw from the helicopter on his trip to entertain troops in Vietnam. Brown understood the people’s anger. He also understood futility. Meeting with city officials, he assured them he would not take sides. Still, he would let all of Augusta know his feelings. He wasn’t there to justify illegal acts on the part of the protesters, nor did he make excuses for The Man. He took his message to the streets. He went on his own radio station to calm, but also encourage people in Augusta. In his autobiography, he recalled what he told citizens in his hometown.
I went on the air immediately, asking the people to think about what they were doing. I tried to make the same point I made in Boston and Washington: that it didn’t make any sense to burn your own neighborhood. “This is your city too,” I said…..This country is as much yours as it is the white man’s. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not.” I said the establishment of Augusta had better listen to the black citizens of Augusta. They needed to talk to the people themselves, not to the so-called leaders who don’t really represent the black community…..I tried to talk about their grievances: unequal treatment in jobs, education, and generally not having a chance at the finer things in life.
Things cooled down in Augusta. Lester Maddox was relieved of that. But he continued to blame “conspiracies” going back 40 years for the riots. His stone-cold heart kept him from sharing Brown’s views. James Sullivan reported in The Hardest Working Man that Maddox told Brown, “I don’t know of anyone who is forcing unequal rights on your people.” Brown countered with “I’m from Augusta. People here don’t have equality.” Maddox was fortunate to receive a dignified response, which his statement didn’t deserve.
Brown surely must have thought back to July 3, 1964, when Maddox pulled a gun on three black men who simply wanted to eat at The Pickrick. That was the day after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Maddox was charged with violation of the new law, his claims of a “police state” notwithstanding. He didn’t win the case but his infamy was looked upon admirably by many whites opposed to integration. That admiration, in less than three years, carried Lester Maddox to the Governor’s Office. The Maddox victory, however, did not alter the goal America was at long last pursuing. Four years after his term as Governor expired, Maddox ran for the office again. Georgia voters rejected him. They had grown tired of his foolishness and the enmity it produced toward others.
It was also in the momentous month of July ’64 that James Brown’s “Out of Sight” hit the pop charts, peaking at number 24. The following year, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” peaked at number 8 and number 3, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100.
Brown’s career, it turned out, rose along with the country’s aspirations. The years of Brown’s ascent on the pop charts were pivotal years in the civil rights movement. His first hit recording, “Please, Please, Please,” was released in March ’56, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by the young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., was into its fourth month. As demands for change and equality increased over the next decade, the music of those years conveyed the beliefs and spirit of the movement. While Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” spoke to the mind as well as the heart, it was the music of James Brown that reflected the grittiness and determination of those calling out for the American freedoms. A great movement was under way and hardly anyone had movement working inside him like James Brown.
The Most Important Black Man In America? … Several years after the assassination of Dr. King, the question over who would take his place as leader of America’s black people was frequently posed. Today we have an African-American as President of the United States. Barrack Obama is a very good man, with many gifts, but he’d be the first to concede that no one could ever take the place or match the greatness of Dr. King. What King brought to America and especially its black citizens, was brave leadership in perilous times for those demanding their share of the American dream. The times and the person seldom come together so brilliantly as they did in America with Dr. King and his leadership in the ’50’s and ’60’s.
Yet Soul Brother Number One from Augusta, Georgia, albeit with a different approach, made quite an impact on the lives of Americans in the same years as King and for many years afterward. Thomas Barry, writing for the February 18, 1969 issue of Look magazine, took note of Brown’s accomplishments, his style of leadership and his innate sense of what was right and wrong in America. In an article entitled James Brown: Is He the Most Important Black Man in America?, Barry reviewed Brown’s achievements in and out of show business, writing that “Many men have gone from ghetto to glory and forgotten. He bothered to come back.”
Brown also bothered to let Barry know what was on his mind, admitting to feeling “privately very discouraged.” His words reflected the thinking of one who had seriously pondered our country’s problems.
The country’s gonna blow up in two years unless the white man wakes up. The black man’s got to be set free. He’s got to be treated like a man. I don’t say hire a cat because he’s black; just hire him if he’s right. This country is like a crap game. I’ll lose my money to any man long as the game is fair. But if I find the dice are crooked, I’ll turn the table over. What we need are programs that are so out of sight they’ll leave the militants with their mouths open. A militant is a cat that’s never been allowed to be a man.
His prediction of the country blowing up in two years didn’t come about, at least not because of racial inequality. In the early ’70’s, America was already torn and frayed over the war in Vietnam. During that time and the decades afterward, many black Americans could acknowledge progress, long in coming, had been made, but the process had been and would remain slow. It isn’t likely that the government has ever rolled out programs that could be called, as Brown put it, out of sight.
Feeling Good, Doing Good … James Brown was not only an important man, but a wise one, who inspired both blacks and whites. Hardly anyone could work all the angles as Soul Brother Number One. Who else, after all, had the ears of both H. Rap Brown and Strom Thurmond? That important black man was certainly among the most savvy of Americans.
This article is excerpted from Jeff Cochran’s upcoming book, Drop Me Off On Peachtree: A History Of Atlanta.