History November 10, 2021 at 03:00 pm

That night James Brown calmed Boston amid riots over Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor November 10, 2021 at 03:00 pm

November 10, 2021 at 03:00 pm | History

James Brown, pictured here in 1991, performed in Boston the night after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. (Kevork Djansezian/AP)

Legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., until he was fatally shot in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice. At 6:05 pm on Thursday, April 4, 1968, King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers.

News of King’s death sparked racial violence, with looting and arson, leading to the death of more than 40 people nationwide. In Boston, Massachusetts, the day after King’s assassination, officials were preparing to control what they believed would be another night of unrest. Other cities in the U.S. were doing the same.

But thanks to soul singer James Brown, Boston was saved that Friday night from exploding. Indeed, Brown’s appearance in Boston for a musical show and his personal charisma on the night of April 5, 1968, calmed the city, according to HISTORY. But the show almost didn’t happen.

The Boston Garden Arena which was to host the show almost canceled it amid tensions in the city. Boston’s mayor, Kevin White, whose election victory in 1967 had come in the midst of school integration and forced school busing, also wanted to cancel the event over fears that it could bring violence. But Tom Atkins, the city’s only Black councilman, advised the mayor to go on with the show. He told the mayor that if 15,000 Black people arrived for the concert and found the venue closed, they would riot and probably destroy the venue.

He further advised that to keep people at home in front of their television sets rather than on the streets, the show should be free and broadcast live. Atkins and the mayor spoke with public television station WGBH to air the concert live and it agreed. The concert, initially another James Brown Orchestra and Revue tour stop, was now being announced in the media as a tribute to King and would be broadcast on television throughout the city.

But it wasn’t easy convincing Brown on the changes that had been made in connection with the show as he made known some financial needs. According to The Washington Post, Brown realized at the venue that he was losing tens of thousands of dollars through people returning tickets so they could watch at home free. What’s more, he had taped another concert in New York to air in the same market and he could be sued for breach of contract after the Boston concert is also televised. The “Godfather of Soul”, therefore, demanded $60,000 for his performance.

Brown’s concert did exactly what it was expected to do as Boston stayed quiet that night. The mayor even shared a stage with Brown and appealed to his city to be calm. “All I ask you tonight is this; let us look at each other here in the Gardens and back at home and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.”

But at some point during the show, some young fans started climbing on stage. The police immediately began pushing them back. Brown, sensing what might happen next, stopped the music, told the cops he was all right and asked the cops to leave the stage. He then addressed the crowd: “Wait a minute, wait a minute now WAIT!”.

“Step down, now, be a gentleman….“We are black! Don’t make us all look bad! Let me finish the show … You’re not being fair to yourself or me or your race.

“Now I asked the police to step back because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”

And that was how things went back to normal and the show continued. Reports said that even though Brown received a cash payment of $10,000, which was nowhere near what he asked, he was soon being sought after by politicians. He even attended a White House dinner for the prime minister of Thailand a month after the concert.

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