Remember When: James Brown Saves Boston

April 5, 1968. The Boston Garden.

A day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was an understandable feeling of unrest in the Black community. Memphis, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston—more than 100 American cities were burning. As local governments tried to figure out how to diffuse the situation, the National Guard was called into action in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

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King had been a leading voice calling for racial equality and civil rights—through non-violence. In 1965, landmark civil rights legislation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson thanks largely in part to Dr. King. King continued to deliver his peaceful message, that included outspoken action against the war in Vietnam, until his death.

James Brown was known as the Godfather of Soul. He was decidedly not a pacifist; as a teen, he served jail time for robbery. And as an adult, he believed in letting his music do the talking. He made himself a symbol for controlling one’s own destiny. He liked to tell the story of shining shoes on the steps of WRDW in Augusta, Georgia, as a child. He bought the station as a grown-up. To Brown, that was an example of Black Power. 

The Death of Dr. King

On the morning of April 4, 1968, King was shot on the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. President Johnson made a statement: “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by non-violence.”

James Brown was scheduled to play at the Boston Garden the following night. But the Roxbury/Blue Hill Ave. area of Boston had become a war zone. The police were in riot gear, and distraught crowds were causing mass destruction. 

Mayor Kevin White had been recently elected to office in a closely contested race that heavily involved the theme of racial equality. Mayor White pushed to cancel the show. He felt there was no way to guarantee that the police could keep peace and order if the show went on. Meanwhile, Boston’s only Black city councilman at the time, Tom Atkins, pointed out there was no way to maintain peace and order if the show was canceled. 

A Compromise

Mayor White came up with the idea of televising the concert to encourage the community to stay home. WGBH was contacted, and it was arranged that they would broadcast the show. Patrons who had tickets were bringing them in for refunds. Suddenly, it became evident that James Brown would be losing revenue in the deal.

Councilman Atkins became the liaison between the Mayor’s office and the singer. Brown was flying into Boston. Atkins met him at the airport, and Brown immediately expressed his frustration about the situation. Atkins asked how much money they were talking about, and Brown informed him it would be $60,000.

Atkins reported back to the Mayor’s office and was told that the city had no intention of paying anything close to that amount. Atkins didn’t share that information with Brown.

As showtime approached, Boston was on edge. It was ready to explode. Councilman Atkins, Mayor White, and James Brown convened at the Boston Garden and met backstage. White agreed to pay the money. There was a delay due to the technical connections with WGBH, and the concert did not start for over an hour after it was scheduled.

With Brown at his side, Councilman Tom Atkins addressed the uneasy crowd who chose to retain their seats. “This country owes a great thing to James Brown, and we’re lucky that we have him here tonight with us. Give another round of applause to James Brown.”

“I’d like to bring to the microphone now the man who is making the program tonight possible, the honorable Mayor… “

Just then, Brown grabbed the mic out of Atkins’ hand. Atkins was visibly surprised. 

Brown said, “First, I’d like to say I had the pleasure of meeting Mayor. I called him ‘Honorable Mayor,’ and he said let’s all come down together. So, let’s hear it for a swinging cat, OK? Mayor Kevin White.”

The Mayor came onstage to say, “All of us are here tonight to listen to a great talent, James Brown. But we’re also here to pay tribute to one of the greatest Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King. All I ask you tonight is this. Let us look at each other here in the Garden and back at home and pledge that whatever any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace. Thank you.”

The Healing Power of Music

The crowd applauded, and the mayor shook James Brown’s hand. The show started. Brown and the band had done their thing countless times before, but this time felt different. There were no pauses between songs. The band flowed from one tune to the other. The crowd was transfixed.

[RELATED: The Story Behind James Brown’s Infamous $5 Fines]

The police reported the city was quieter that night than it would have been on an ordinary Friday night. As the concert neared its end, Brown went into his legendary cape routine. The crowd started to rush the stage. Police pushed back, and things started coming to a head. Brown motioned for the people to step back. He then motioned for the police to step back. When one audience member jumped up toward the singer, a police officer shoved him off the stage. Brown stopped the band. The tension was palpable. 

The singer said to the audience, “You’re not being fair to yourself or to me, either. Or your race. Are we together or ain’t we?” He continued, “This isn’t our way. We are Black. We are Black. Don’t make us all look bad.” 

The show finished without further incident. WGBH repeated the performance on both TV and radio.  

The headline of The Boston Globe the following day read, “SINGER BROWN COOLED CROWD.”

It was good news in Boston, but other cities didn’t fare so well. More than 40 people died, and 20,000 were arrested in cities around the country. James Brown was called by D.C. Mayor Walter Washington that day to fly to the Nation’s capital and conduct a press conference to plead for peace in their city, as well. It was one of the darker times for the country, but it could have been much, much worse—especially in Boston if it weren’t for Brown. That concert was undoubtedly an example of music’s healing power.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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