James Brown's Estate Is Being Hijacked in the American South

Author and Journalist

To truly know the American South, you must come from the American South, says journalist and author James McBride. There is a particular code of values in the south, however blinded by history, that "in one way makes it great, and in one way makes it tragic." Indeed nobody can understand the south, and the people of the south, quite like black individuals who have spent their lives there. One such person of epic proportions was the godfather of American soul music, James Brown.

As writers and journalists do, McBride set out to better understand himself and his circumstances through Brown, his subject. What he found is as tragic as the legacy of American slavery itself. Despite leaving detailed legal instruction that a large portion of his estate be given to charity — he wished to establish an education fund for undeserved children of all racial backgrounds — Brown's legacy and his funds remain tied up in South Carolina courts.

McBride reports that more than 90 lawyers are now involved in the case, managing 48 lawsuits and 4,000 pages of testimony, meanwhile drawing funds from Brown estate — the same fund earmarked for charity — to pay their fees. It is a travesty of justice, says McBride. One that is unimaginable if the estates of Elvis Presley or John Lennon had been so meticulously set aside for doing good work. The legacy of the south lives on.

McBride's book isKill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

James McBride:  I think America’s South is a very difficult place to comprehend if you don’t come from the South. I think there’s a familiarity that exists in the South between white and black people that northerners don’t really understand. And in that regard James Brown was much more a southerner than he was a black man. Because there’s a kind of – everyone stays in their lane kind of mentality between whites and blacks in the South, especially during James Brown’s era. That we in the North just don’t understand. I think part of it is they accept each other’s sins, they accept each other’s dirty laundry, they don’t make any comment about it. Everybody has problems. They all worship the same god. But there are certain lines you don’t cross. Everybody knows their place. It’s a very ordered society and you should try to maintain the kind of dignity and honor and trust that is part of the American South which in one way makes it great and in one way makes it tragic, you know. And I don’t think you can understand James Brown without understanding at least having a cursory understanding of America’s South.

Because it’s a place where people are extremely kind, extremely dignified, will give you their last quarter and trust you on a handshake. But if you betray that trust their journey with you is pretty much over. And then if you, you know, you come at them wrong after that then you’re liable to spend the rest of your life babbling into therapy or sipping your food through a straw because southerners have a great deal of power. You have to remember the South beat the – the confederate army beat the union army three years straight and they were out gunned and out, I mean it’s true. They were out gunned and they were out manned and they had their backs up about people telling them what to do. And I don’t think anyone knows southerners as well as the blacks who walk among them. And one of those was James Brown. That’s why I say you can’t understand him without understanding the land that produced him which is a good place full of good people with some pretty, you know, pretty bad lawyers. With pretty good lawyers depending on whose side you’re on.

James Brown left everything he had, his entire estate, his likeness, his music, his performance, his publishing – everything – his entire wealth to a fund to educate poor black and white children in South Carolina and Georgia. He was very specific about that. Poor children of all types. And this guy was a victim of racism his entire life but he was very – he operated with the belief that we all – that we have to come together as American people. That was in 2006. In ten years not a single kid has been educated. Not a single penny of that to my knowledge has reached a single kid. It’s been tied up in lawsuits, you know, 48 lawsuits, 4,000 pages of testimony, 90 attorneys most of whom never even knew James Brown. But it’s because some of his children and his last wife if Shindy was his wife and the State of South Carolina have come together to create this cacophony of lawsuits whereby lawyers just sue each other and dip into his estate to pay each other. And it’s all guided by a trustee that was appointed by the state.

So the guy who created soul music and really is probably the biggest creator of the American pop musical sound, his music is being administered by the State of South Carolina which is not known to be a place where they’re very gentle and kind when it comes to African-American life. So I don’t believe that would happen if his name was Elvis Presley or John Lennon.