James Brown Saves Boston After Martin Luther King’s Assassination, Calls for Peace Across America (1968)

Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s death could not have been more dev­as­tat­ing to African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try hop­ing to see the civ­il rights leader live to build on the suc­cess­es of the move­ment. Despite King’s painful­ly prophet­ic “I’ve Been to the Moun­tain­top” speech the day before his assas­si­na­tion in Mem­phis Ten­nessee, most peo­ple hoped to see him fin­ish the work he’d begun. Those hopes were dashed on April, 4 1968. After King’s death, embit­tered and embat­tled minori­ties in cities North and South erupt­ed in riot­ing. Boston—a city of de fac­to seg­re­ga­tion to rival Birmingham’s—seemed poised to blow up as well  in the Spring of ’68, its “race rela­tions… already on a short fuse.” As pub­lic radio pro­gram Week­end Amer­i­ca describes the con­di­tions:

The ten­sion had been esca­lat­ing in the mid-60s as the city began to deseg­re­gate its pub­lic schools. The may­oral race in 1967 pit­ted a lib­er­al reformer, Kevin White, against Louise Day Hicks, an oppo­nent of deseg­re­ga­tion. Hicks ran under the eva­sive slo­gan “You know where I stand.” White won the race by less than 12,000 votes.

In this stark­ly divid­ed city, James Brown went onstage to per­form the day after King’s death, and it seems, whether that impres­sion is his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate or not, that Brown sin­gle-hand­ed­ly quelled Boston’s unrest before it spilled over into riot­ing.

The city’s politi­cians may have had some­thing to do with it as well. Before Brown took the micro­phone, the nar­row­ly-elect­ed May­or White addressed the rest­less crowd (top), ask­ing them to pledge that “no mat­ter what any oth­er com­mu­ni­ty might do, here in Boston, we will hon­or Dr. King’s lega­cy in peace.” After Coun­cilor Tom Atk­in’s lengthy intro­duc­tion and the may­or’s short speech, the audi­ence seems recep­tive, if eager to get the show on.

The archival footage was shot by Boston’s WGBH, who broad­cast Brown’s per­for­mance that night. (The clip comes from a VH1 “rock­u­men­tary” called, fit­ting­ly, “The Night James Brown Saved Boston.”) Not long after the band kicked in, the scene became chaot­ic after a Boston police offi­cer shoved a young man off the stage. Brown inter­vened, calm­ing the cops and the crowd. His drum­mer John Starks remem­bers it this way: “It was almost at a point where some­thing bad was going to hap­pen. And he said [to the police] ‘Let me talk to them.’ He had that pow­er.” In the clip above, watch con­cert­go­ers and oth­er band­mem­bers describe their impres­sions of Brown’s “pow­er” to reach the crowd.

Brown’s calm­ing effect went beyond this par­tic­u­lar gig. See him in the footage above address an audi­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. two days after King’s death. “Edu­ca­tion is the answer,” he says, and sets up his own excep­tion­al boos­t­rap­ping rise from pover­ty as a mod­el to emu­late (“today, I own that radio sta­tion”). And WFMU’s Beware of the Blog brings us the audio below, from the year before King’s death—a time still fraught with spo­radic riots and nation­wide unrest against a sys­tem increas­ing­ly per­ceived as oppres­sive, cor­rupt, and beyond reform.

On the record, which was “prob­a­bly dis­trib­uted to radio sta­tions only,” Brown makes an impas­sioned plea for “black peo­ple, poor peo­ple” to “orga­nize” against their con­di­tions, rather than riot. While the mes­sage from “Soul Broth­er Num­ber One”—a title he accepts with humil­i­ty above—failed to douse the flames in cities like Wash­ing­ton, DC, Detroit, Chica­go, and Louisville, KY, and over 100 oth­ers after King’s mur­der, in Boston, the audi­ence at his con­cert and the peo­ple watch­ing at home on tele­vi­sion seemed to heed his calls for non­vi­o­lence. “Boston,” writes Week­end Amer­i­ca, “remained qui­et.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:
Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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