In Memory of Dr. King — James Brown’s Five Greatest Civil Rights Statements

by Marcus Dowling

On April 5, 1968, it was James Brown who famously performed in an effort to keep the city of Boston, Massachusetts from further dissolving into a mess of violent crime in outrage over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Brown’s concert at the Boston Garden on the 5th had been scheduled for some time, but with the city in a state of emergency, the idea of “Soul Brother #1″ performing in downtown Boston seemed to many city officials to be an unwise gambit. However, when city council member Tom Atkins suggested that airing a free broadcast of the live concert on local PBS station WGBH would likely keep people off the streets, the performance eventually went on as scheduled, and is arguably one of the great unsung moments of the civil rights movement.

James Brown’s legacy in the era immediately following the tumultuous time following Dr. King’s assassination is deeply connected to his ability to serve as a de facto leader of the movement for African-American civil rights.

Thus, in celebrating the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it feels in some ways apropos to list the five most worthwhile civil and social rights songs (and messages within them) that James Brown passed on to the world. While not at the same level of elocution or stoic manner as the Nobel Prize-winning Baptist reverend, what he lacked in grace he more than made up for with funk. As a master of a global language that unifies everyone under a groove, James deserves a similar respect as a civil rights proponent that’s given to the man who would have been 85 years old today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

5. “Get Up Offa That Thing,” 1976

Get up offa that thing, and dance ’till you feel better! 
Get up offa that thing, and dance ’till you, help me out! 
Get up offa that thing, and dance ’till you feel better! 
Get up offa that thing, and try to release that pressure! 
Get up offa that thing, and shake ’till you feel better! 
Get up offa that thing, and try to release, say it now!

Following an economic depression spurred on by an oil crisis, steel crisis stock market crash and unemployment reaching a high of nine percent,  as much as the shuffling funk groove of “Get Up Offa That Thing” can be about getting down on the one, it also can just as easily refer to the need for urban blacks affected by the crises to get down to the voting booth in order to make certain that America was put in a better situation that would assist black America.

4. “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” 1972

“Good luck to you / Just allow you’re wrong
Then keep on singing that / Same old money song”

In 1972, black America was in the midst of unprecedented gains in terms of ownership of businesses and development of economic and socio-political infrastructures in urban communities in cities across the country. The horn-driven jam serves the purpose of steadying the ship for blacks adjusting to economic, political and social development, especially in the face of a white establishment likely still standing in direct opposition to these gains.

3. “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” 1970

Everybody over there (Get on up)
Everybody right there (Get into it)
Everybody over here (Get involved)

By 1970, both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, the Black Panthers had been infiltrated and it can be argued Jesse Jackson was still in the midst of truly evolving into the civil rights leader we’ve all come to know and love. Thus, on the riotous funk shouter, the “Godfather of Soul” makes a call for black Americans to do their part to ensure that the civil rights movement did not die. Clearly, his call was answered.

2. “Soul Power,” 1971

I want to get under your skin / If I get there, I’ve got to win
You need some soul, come on get some / And then you’ll know, where I’m comin’ from
I may lay in the cut and go along / And I’m still on the case and my rap is strong
Huh huh, hey/ Go jump on my train, when I’m outta sight
Just check yourself, huh, and say, yeah you’re right / Huh, hit me, give me, put it there, huh
Love me tender, and love me slow / If that don’t get it, jump back for more
We gotta gotta gotta, get in the bracket / You know I like it, hey

The civil rights movement was associated with blacks and minorities looking for a better shake from the hand of American justice, however, the movement also had many non-minority sympathizers. Set against one of Brown’s funkiest grooves, he outlines how to get in touch with the intrinsic force pushing the civil rights movement, be that by curiously joining when nobody’s looking, Brown himself attempting to win supporters himself by appearing to “go along to get along,” and well, by more…ahem…”sensual” means.

1. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” 1968

Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lot of nerve
But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve
We have been ‘buked and we have been scorned
We’ve been treated bad, talked about as sure as you’re born
But just as sure as it takes two eyes to make a pair, ha
Brother we can’t quit until we get our share

I worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

Ooh-wee, give it to me
All right, you’re out of sight
All night, so tough
You’re tough and rough
Ooh-wee, uh, you’re killing me
We demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

We’re people, we like the birds and the bees
We’d rather die on our feet
Than be living on our knees

With the force of what still, to this day, feels like the one time in American history that black people all unified in raising a Black Power fist to the world, this song stands the test of time as a profound statement to the strength of black people in America bearing a seemingly unbearable load.

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