Godfather of Soul

James Brown, Friend of Strom Thurmond and Mentor to Al Sharpton

The soul-funk innovator had some complex and (quite frankly) bizarre political views.


Get On Up, director Tate Taylor’s new James Brown biopic, has scored some good press lately, particularly for Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying turn as the Godfather of Soul. The film covers Brown’s mammoth talent, teenage delinquency, violent nature toward women, and his gig in war-ravaged Vietnam.

However, the movie barely touches on the soul-funk innovator’s complex and (quite frankly) bizarre political views. Hell, a dramatic examination of Brown’s politics could fill a feature-length film all on its own.

“Brown’s activism, for all its public-relations value, was too idiosyncratic to echo anybody else’s ideology,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. In the mid-1960s, Brown often cancelled gigs to perform benefit shows for black civil rights groups. He urged African-American children not to drop out of school (as he himself had been forced to do in the seventh grade), efforts that earned him praise from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Brown’s “Operation Black Pride” in 1968 brought thousands of free Christmas dinners to poor black neighborhoods in New York City. And he was a mentor, close friend, and father figure to Rev. Al Sharpton. (Sharpton even owes his hairstyle to Brown, who urged the activist to get his hair straightened before the two visited the White House together in the early ’80s.)

But there’s at least one aspect of Brown political life that most definitely did not rub off on his mentee: his affection for Strom Thurmond— the severely segregationist senator from South Carolina who ran for president on a pro-segregation platform in 1948, and who spent days taking steam baths and pissed in a bucket just so he could filibuster a 1957 civil rights bill for more than a day. If Thurmond had had his way, the American system of education that Brown loved so much would have remained organized by skin color.

“Can’t do all black,” Brown said about his relationship with the senator. “He’s a friend of mine.” Beyond their friendship, Brown actually raved about Thurmond as one of the heroes of the 20th century, when asked during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1999.

“Sen. Thurmond has been able to stay afloat all these years, and he’s great for our country,” Brown said. “When the young whippersnappers get out of line, whether Democrat or Republican, an old man can walk up and say, ‘Wait a minute, son, it goes this way.’ And that’s great for our country. He’s like a grandfather to me.”

“James is very generous with his comments,” Thurmond later tersely responded.

Brown’s conservatism (though he never self-identified as a Republican or Democrat) was also presented in far less unsettling ways. The 1969 song “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)” is essentially an anti-entitlements anthem. 1968’s “America Is My Home” is a funky flag-waving number that pushed back against the waves of criticism and protest over the Vietnam War.

“By the time I got back from Vietnam people were on my case about ‘America Is My Home,’ calling me an Uncle Tom, saying the song was a sellout,” Brown wrote in his autobiography. “Some of the more militant organizations sent representatives backstage after shows to talk about it. ‘How can you do a song like that after what happened to Dr. King?’ they’d say. I talked to them and tried to explain that when I said ‘America is my home,’ I didn’t mean the government was my home, I meant the land and the people. They didn’t want to hear that.”

Brown was never a big partisan campaigner, but he wasn’t above the occasional endorsement. Though he originally backed Democratic presidential contender Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he accepted an invitation to perform at President Nixon’s inaugural ball in 1969. And his endorsement of Nixon during the reelection campaign led to protests and calls for a boycott. “James Brown, Nixon’s Clown,” the picket signs read. He was a friend of the Reagan administration, and decades later performed at a fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2003.

You can hear Brown chat about how much he admired Ronald Reagan—“most intelligent…most well-coordinated president we ever had,” by Brown’s estimation—here:

But Brown wasn’t without his moment of political disillusionment. “I thought I could get into politics and benefit the country, but I’m into music now,” he told the Associated Press in 1980. “Music is cleaner. You really believe in somebody and they come back being everything you don’t believe in.” And if you still find yourself confounded by Brown political leanings and attitudes, perhaps one of his quotes from 1989 will help capture the contradictions and eccentricities in his views:

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“Politics and reality is so different now that reality doesn’t have anything to do with politics anymore.”