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
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
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
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.
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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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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