The Night James Brown Saved Boston

This morning, one of the emails awaiting me was from Kenzo An, founder of the Loft Sessions, with a note about the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, as well as a related anecdote from Boston history.

From the email:

Some brief context: After Dr. King was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968, a nationwide wave of riots broke out in more than 100 cities. Boston was bracing itself for a similar eruption of violence. Looting and fires had already broken out in the African-American sections of Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End on the evening of the assassination.

The then-38-year-old mayor Kevin White was giving serious consideration to canceling the April 5 concert of soul music superstar James Brown at the Boston Garden, for fear of bringing chaos directly into the city center. Tom Atkins, Boston’s first African-American city councilor, convinced White to let Brown go on with the show—he conjured up the terrifying image of dealing with 14,000 angry people at the Garden who weren’t notified in time that the show was canceled—and to strike a deal with the TV networks to broadcast it live throughout the city.

Brown, at first, wasn’t pleased with the proposal: he had contractual agreements with a show just filmed in New York, and knew his ticket sales would suffer if the concert were made available to all free of charge on TV. White was committed, though, and did what he had to do by way of restitution. His efforts worked: Brown finally agreed to perform.

The Boston Phoenix called Brown’s show “The Greatest Concert in Boston History.” Brown dedicated the concert to Dr. King. He also invited White to speak to the audience, introducing him as “a swinging cat” to great applause (and surprise). White was said to have told the live and broadcast spectators, “To make Reverend Dr. King’s dream a reality in Boston…no matter what any other community might do—we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.”

“I remember going through the South End and every window seemed to be watching James Brown,” said Peter Wolf, the lead singer of the J. Geils Band.

Only 2,000 of the Garden’s 14,000 seats were filled that night—but the end effect was that Boston’s soul was soothed enough to pass through this painful and tumultuous fissure in the nation’s psyche without the destructive upheaval that occurred in so many other cities across the country.

As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy today, allow us to also suggest the Washington Post’s call to honor the women of the civil rights movement, Buzzfeed’s collection of MLK’s lesser-known quotes, and a tribute concert at the Hatch Shell tonight, 7pm. What other reading would you recommend today?


video credit: The Night James Brown Saved Boston


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