The FBI and the Godfather (of Soul)

I don’t know what anti-censorship activist (and longtime CounterPunch contributor) Phyllis Pollack expected when she filed a request for James Brown’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. I figured she might find some information about his international connections, his work in the civil rights movement, and his meetings with President Nixon and Vice-President Humphrey.

There is nothing in the file she received about any of that, which doesn’t mean that the Bureau doesn’t have it. FOIA requests are routinely given the back of the government’s hand, especially by the F.B.I.

What the feds have released about James Brown is dynamite, though. All of it relates to an accusation made in January 1989 by his then-wife Adrienne. Mrs. Brown accused local police and judges in South Carolina and Georgia of violating her husband’s civil rights. The FBI pursued the case for about ten days and then so listlessly that to call the investigation superficial would give it way too much credit.

Both James and Adrienne Brown tell a very different story than what the public heard. Only an article by Jesse Jackson in Jet got it anywhere near straight. The charge that sent James Brown to prison was a so-called “blue light violation.” It’s all but unprecedented to be given six years in prison for such a crime (refusing to pull over for the cops), let alone receive that punishment from two states. (A young white man sentenced for the same violation the same day received a suspended sentence.)

James Brown wasn’t sent to prison because he was a PCP-crazed soul man with a gun. He went to prison because he fled the cops, all right, but he fled them with good reason, For eighteen months Brown had been targeted for harassment by cops in Aiken, South Carolina and Richmond County, Georgia, which sits right alongside Beech Island, SC, where the Browns resided. It began when Brown got into a fender bender on the Georgia highway he had to use to get home. That one resulted in Brown being jailed after some very dubious proceedings, and allegedly being punched in the mouth.

The FBI report also reveals that Brown did not lead cops on a high speed chase through two states. The police admitted that they followed Brown but they never “chased” him–they never even turned on their lights or sirens. Nevertheless, there were 17 bullet holes in the cab of Brown’s truck when it was over. Brown did have a shotgun, of course. It was unloaded and “inoperative.” Allegedly, the police shot into his car while it was parked in South Carolina, where Brown came to a stop and began talking to local officers. (One Georgia officer took the trouble to knock out the glass in the passenger window with the butt of his gun.)

The allegation that Brown was high on PCP came from a local police analysis of an improperly administered blood test. The cops first said that it showed Brown high on cocaine, then changed their story. The next day, when Brown was again arrested, he was not out careening around the countryside high on anything. He was at the Georgia War Veterans’ Home in Augusta, visiting his father.

There had been a couple of police visits to the Brown home. Adrienne offered credible explanations for each of them. One wound up with Brown agreeing to put on a benefit concert for local disabled children but it was “a failure due to the fear of the local black population of the police, who boycotted the concert.”

Brown’s version of the incident that sent him to prison conforms in its essentials to his wife’s. Brown adds that, while handcuffed, he was punched in the jaw by a cop.

Adrienne Brown also claimed that the trial was unfair, the judge strongly involved in jury selection, a change of venue denied even though 90 local news reports had carried only the police version of the events. Brown had left the country for a European tour, but returned, ill-prepared, for the trial. Nevertheless, the judge forced him to spend the entire trial in the local jail.

You may think that this is just James and Adrienne Brown’s attempt to rationalize his misbehavior. That’s what you’re supposed to think. You’re also supposed to think that James and Adrienne Brown had a terrible relationship, that he abused her and may have fired his gun at her. If that’s true, then why would Adrienne step up to try to get James out of prison? Why do James, interviewed in prison, and Adrienne Brown, interviewed in an FBI office, tell essentially the same story? Why is there no record in the FBI report of a contrary version of the story from the police? Because the Feebs held it back to protect the guilty officers? Or because they didn’t bother to talk with the Georgia and South Carolina police on the record?

Most important, why did no one except Jesse Jackson manage to put even a semblance of the Browns’ side of the story into print when America’s greatest living musician was sent to prison?

Most mysteriously, where is the FBI’s account of the rest of the political and social activism that occupied James Brown’s attention during the late 1960s and much of the 1970s.

DAVE MARSH is editor of Rock & Rap Confidential. Marsh’s definitive and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has recently been reissued, with 12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts. He can be reached at:

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