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.”