Cities: Augusta

James Brown Cools Down Augusta Rioters

On Monday, May 11, 1970, Charles Oatman, a sixteen-year-old, mentally handicapped juvenile being held for murder at the Richmond County Jail, was tortured and beaten to death by his cellmates. Protestors rallied outside the jail in an attempt to expose the harsh conditions in the jail as well as the cruel treatment blacks received at the hands of law enforcement officials. They also expressed grievances about the lack of opportunities for blacks that kept many at levels of poverty.

Soon, the protests turned into a full-fledged riot. Five hundred blacks marched to the Augusta Municipal Building where they tore down and burned the state flag. They burned or looted buildings within one hundred square feet. Police sent to quell the riot shot and killed six African American men and wounded twenty-five other blacks. Governor Lester Maddox ordered two thousand National Guardsmen into the city to “shoot and kill,” even though by that time, the riots had already subsided.

In 1969 the city honored James Brown as its “accomplished son.”  A year later, as seen in the middle of this WSB-TV clip, he returns on May 12 from Flint, Michigan to meet with Governor Maddox and help quell the riots. The meeting between Brown and Maddox lasted approximately twenty minutes and involved a discussion about the racial troubles in the city. Arguing that he could serve as a more effective communicator than Maddox, Brown volunteered to represent black Augustans so that he could reach young people in the black community. 

Brown promised to broadcast taped appeals for non-violence to the community and to urge women and children to remain off the streets. He also challenged city officials to hear out the concerns of younger leaders. 

At the time of the Augusta unrest, Brown had reached the zenith of his career in terms of both popularity and creativity. In 1963, he released his classic Live at the Apollo album and followed with such classic singles as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (pts 1-2)" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in 1964 and 1965. While these songs, as well as others from the era, do not directly present a strong social message, as in later singles such as "Don't Be a Dropout" and "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," their popularity enabled Brown to use his musical talents as a platform for social change.

The WSB-TV reporter Jim Whipkey, who interviews James Brown here, asks what he thinks can be done about the rioting. Brown states that all citizens, black and white, need to work together to come to an understanding in order to calm the tension. After the short segment, Whipkey compresses Brown's message to the community to two words when he states that the singer has asked the Augusta rioters to “cool it.” Yet Brown did not mention these words in his answer, and he took a neutral stance by asking both the black and white citizens to unify for peace, not just the rioters, as Whipkey seemed to imply.

Brown returned home in an attempt to ask both the black and white communities to work together for peace. Because of his celebrity status, he was able to speak to members of both races. His attempt was ultimately a successful one because in the end he did seem to “cool” the tension.

Events in Augusta forewarned future rifts in the Civil Rights Movement between older, more traditional leaders and their more radical successors. add more interpretation

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Discussion Questions

1. Why enlist a popular musician to appeal to the community?  Do you think entertainers hold the power of political persuasion? Think of examples where entertainers have successfully influenced the people and explain why they were or were not successful. 

2. Do you find that Jim Whipkey’s addition of “cool it” to his report on Brown was in any way biased? Why or why not?

3. Why do you think the protests outside the jail turned into a riot? What would proponents of non-violent methods of civil disobedience say in response to the actions of the black community that day?

Take it to the Streets!

Listen to the songs of James Brown, for example “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965), “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (1966), or “Say It Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968). How does the style of James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” compare and contrast to the events occurring around the songs’ initial popularity? Do the songs help or hinder the Movement? Examine the music and compose a presentation citing musical examples to support your interpretation. 

Writers: Meagan Logsdon, Jacques Mouledoux, Ben Tolbert, Sara Witherington, and Alicia Wages in Professor Barbara McCaskill's ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature), Fall 2007.

Editors and Researchers: Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill

Web Site Designer: William Weems

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