Inside James Brown’s Fatherly Relationship With Al Sharpton

In this interview, the civil rights leader opens up about the details of an unusual yearslong friendship with the Godfather of Soul.

James Brown and Al Sharpton Carl Redding (Courtesy of Jamal Watson)

AS: There were always rumors of domestic violence. I might have seen one altercation. That was in the 1990s. The drugs I never saw. People ask, “Didn’t he act strange?” He was an artist! To me artists act strange all the time. I couldn’t tell if he was high or not. I remember one day his father, Joe Brown—I spoke at his funeral—said to me that Junior (he called Mr. Brown “Junior”) was not going to let me see the bad side of him because you don’t bring a kid in, respect him as a preacher and protect him, and then show him your downside. If he knows I’m admiring him, why would he do something I wouldn’t admire? There’s a contradiction there.

TR: Was it difficult to visit him in prison?

AS: It was traumatic. When he went on trial, when the whole thing happened with him and the car chase, he had several incidents by then. I was there and introduced him to his wife at that time, Alfie. Anytime they would have fights or disagreements, she would call me. She called and said they were putting him on trial. When she called back and said they were giving him six years, I was outraged. So I said, “This is crazy. How can they give him this much time? This is James Brown.”

I got four or five of my guys and we went down to protest. She met us in front of the jail and we held a press conference. And I’ll never forget; I’m standing in front of the jail in South Carolina and a guy walks out on the other side of the gate and says, “Reverend Sharpton. I’m the warden. You’d like to see Mr. Brown?”

They wouldn’t let anyone see him, not even his wife. Brought me in and sat me in a visiting room, totally empty. About a half-hour later they brought Mr. Brown down, who was not in a jail uniform but civilian clothes. He looked like he was about to go onstage. He was immaculate. I got up and hugged him and told him we were out there protesting and it was wrong and we were going to get him out.

He looked at me and said, “Reverend, this is the South. I’m going to be here as long as these folks want to keep me. Now you protest; do whatever you want to, because you can help build your name and keep mine relevant. But don’t think you’re going to get me out.” 

He said, “Reverend, how much money you have in your pocket?” I said $80 or $90. He said, “I lay up in here and in royalties, I’ll make 2 to 3 million a year. I should be protesting for you. You got a problem. I ain’t got no problem. I’m going to be in here a couple of years. I’m going to get some rest, I don’t have no overhead, and when they let me out, I’m going to be bigger than I ever was.”

And he was.