When James Brown took the stage at the Boston Garden on the night of April 5, 1968, the mood was tense — not just in the audience but around the United States. Less than 24 hours prior to the Godfather of Soul’s performance, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenessee. News of the civil rights leader’s assassination led to a national period of mourning and incited rioting in more than 100 American cities — including Boston, Massachusetts.
On the night of King’s death, grief and anger gave way to uprising and fires in the Roxbury and South End neighborhoods of the city. By the next morning, Boston city officials preparing for another night of violent uproar. But — largely thanks to James Brown — that violent uproar didn’t happen.
The Show Must Go On
Brown’s show at the Boston Garden had been scheduled for months, but not everyone was convinced it should proceed as planned. In particular, Boston Mayor Kevin White struggled with the decision to cancel the event or not. On the one hand, he was worried that the event would fan the flames of the city’s unrest and lead to even more violence. On the other, he knew that canceling the concert over racial fears could also trigger violence.
In the end, councilman Tom Atkins — the only African-American person on the Boston City Counsel — persuaded the mayor to let the show go on. As author James Sullivan, wrote in his book The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America, Atkins told White:
“You can’t cancel the James Brown show because if you do that, you’re going to have 14,000 kids showing up at the Boston Garden finding out by a piece of paper stuck on the door that the show has been canceled and, if they’re not already angry and distraught over the murder of Dr. King, now they’re really going to be mad.”
The Show Must Be Aired Live
Atkins proposed that instead of canceling the show, the concert should be broadcast live in order to keep would-be rioters at home watching TV rather than out protesting on the streets. Mayor White agreed. Atkins and White asked Boston public TV station WGBH to film the concert. They also had to convince James Brown to consent to have the show televised, since he stood to lose $60,000 due to a non-compete contract for another televised show. Eventually, Mayor White agreed to cover the $60,000 Brown would have lost.
“The Night James Brown Saved Boston”
After dedicating the show to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brown gave a powerful, emotional, and captivating performance. The turnout was small — only 2,000 of the ticket buyers showed up for the sold-out show — but the audience was entranced and peaceful. There was only one point in the show when, for a moment, it looked like things could become contentious. In the middle of the show, a group of young fans started to climb on stage and surround Brown. White police, some wielding billy clubs, moved to beat the crowd back. Brown, realizing the precariousness of the situation, told the police officers to let him handle it.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute now WAIT!” Brown told the fans crowding him on the stage. “Step down, now, be a gentleman….Now I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”
The fans returned to their seats and Brown continued the show. Brown mesmerized the live audience and TV viewers across the city with soulful renditions of favorites like “I Got A Feeling,” “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” ” “When a Man Loves a Women,” “That’s Life,” “Kansas City,” “Soul Man,” “I Got The Feeling,” and “Cold Sweat. The show and its live broadcast had an incredible effect on the city. During the concert and all night long, the city was miraculously — even surreally — peaceful. In fact, on that night, reported crime rates were lower than a typical Friday night in April in Boston.
As Sullivan would later explain in an interview with WGBH “Historians have looked at the James Brown concert as one of the major events in Boston that night that kept people home, kept them off the streets and kept the peace, whereas many, if not most, of the other major cities around the country experienced a lot of rioting that night.”