Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. King had been an important figure in the American civil rights movement. His violent death stood in stark contrast to his philosophy of nonviolence. Instead of using physical force to further African American rights, King advocated peaceful means. “Nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”
After King’s death, many now questioned whether nonviolence was more effective than violence in the civil rights struggle. When the news reached people’s ears, angry protests broke out in many American cities.
The next day, April 5, U.S. city governments prepared for what they expected could be a second night of violent unrest. In Boston, Massachusetts, mayor Kevin White was one of many U.S. mayors concerned about ensuring his city’s safety. Just four months after being elected mayor, White had a real crisis on his hands. The night before, rioters had set fires in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. To make matters worse, the popular African American singer James Brown had been scheduled for months to give a concert on April 5 in Boston Garden. Many Bostonians feared that a concert by the African American singer would attract a violent and angry crowd. However, White worried that by cancelling the concert, he would anger Boston’s African American community.
A Musical Solution
A solution came from Tom Atkins. Atkins was a young, African American Boston city councilman. Atkins recalled in 2008 that mayor White had reasoned that Brown’s concert “could bring as many as 20,000 black people, young people, into the city. It just had too much emotion in it. That would be a problem.” Atkins disagreed. “I said, ‘Kevin, you are doing exactly the wrong thing,'” Atkins remembers. “‘If the black community hears that the city stopped James Brown from performing, all hell will break loose.'” Atkins thought that James Brown’s presence in Boston might actually prevent more violence. He advised the mayor to allow Brown’s concert to proceed as scheduled. However, he suggested that the city also find a way to broadcast the concert for free on live television. A televised concert, Atkins thought, might keep Bostonians at home instead of in the streets. Mayor White agreed.
White and Atkins convinced Boston public television station WGBH to air that evening’s concert. However, there was another problem. James Brown was already under contract to perform another televised concert at a later date. If the Boston concert was televised, Brown stood to lose $60,000 by breaking his agreement with the other station. Brown let mayor White know about the money he stood to lose, and White agreed that Boston would cover this amount.
Music journalist Tom Vickers was then an 18-year-old fan of James Brown’s music. He was also one of the few white people with tickets to the Boston Garden show. That afternoon, Vickers attended a King memorial service. After the service he went to the concert venue. He asked a police officer if James Brown’s concert was still scheduled. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to happen, but if I were you, I would turn in your tickets and get a refund,'” Vickers remembered. “And I said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ And he said, ‘It’s going to be edgy here. You should return your tickets. Here’s the good news, they are going to broadcast the entire show on WGBH.'”
Mayor White held a press conference later that day. He encouraged Boston residents to stay home and watch the concert on television. Vickers and thousands of other fans cashed in their tickets at the Boston Garden box office.
At 9 o’clock that evening, James Brown walked onstage. Because of the recent events, the 14,000-seat Boston Garden held only 2,000 audience members. Kevin White accompanied Brown onstage. The mayor had a simple message. “I’m here tonight, like all of you, to listen to James,” White told the crowd. “But I’m also here to ask for your help. I’m here to ask you to stay with me as your mayor, and make Dr. King’s dreams a reality in Boston.”
Once the mayor’s speech was finished, it was showtime. Brown, dressed in all black, quickly took command of the crowd. The 22-song concert included some of Brown’s biggest hits, such as Please, Please, Please; I Got You (I Feel Good); and Cold Sweat. John “Jabo” Starks, Brown’s drummer for that concert, later remembered that Brown soon managed to turn the mood from one of mourning to celebration. “I love to play,” he said, “because any problems are vented. I don’t hear, see, think of anything, because I’m playing that music. It’s a relief for me.”
The concert proceeded peacefully. However, near the end of the show, there was a problem. Some of Brown’s fans, both black and white, had become so excited by the music that they began to climb onstage and swarm the singer. Brown sensed that this incident could quickly turn violent. He knew that the police stationed in Boston Garden that night were expecting—and were more than ready—to head off anything that they perceived as violent behavior. The police started to push back the concert goers.
“They were just venting anger,” said Brown’s drummer Starks. “They just wanted to be close to him, but I know when police started to throw them off stage, it became touchy.” “It was almost at a point where something bad was going to happen,” Starks added. “And he [Brown] said ‘Let me talk to them.’ He had that power.”
Brown responded by urging the police to back away from the stage. They did. Next he addressed the audience. “You’re making me look bad,” Brown chastised the crowd. “I asked you to step down and you wouldn’t and that’s wrong. You’re not being fair to yourselves and me neither . . . or your race. Now I asked the authorities to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people.”
After a pause, Brown asked, “Now are we together or ain’t we?” The crowd cheered in response. The concert continued peacefully.
A Nonviolent Outcome
Today, many of Brown’s fans consider his Boston Garden 1968 show to be one of his best. In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine named this concert as one of the 50 best performances of the past 50 years. Tom Vickers, who ended up watching the concert on television with his family, said that Brown, already known for electrifying performances, seemed to reach a new level of energy. “James Brown always gave his all,” Vickers said. “But that night, there was an emotional edge to it. He seemed totally present, in the moment, and giving 110 percent.”
More importantly, Brown’s presence helped maintain peace in Boston that evening. That same night, there were riots in over 100 U.S. cities. Many buildings in Detroit, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., went up in flames. Dozens of people throughout the U.S. were killed, with many more injured. Through the power of his music, Brown helped keep Boston quiet during that charged evening.
In the following weeks, the singer received offers to perform in other U.S. cities. He was even invited to Washington, D.C., simply to speak to rioters and not to perform. In May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson invited James Brown to the White House. The following month, the government sponsored Brown to perform for U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Later, in 1968, Brown released the song Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud. In the song, Brown sang, “Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it’s a lotta nerve, but I say we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.” The song quickly became an anthem for supporters of African American rights. The song was number one on the R&B singles chart for six weeks. Rapper Chuck D, of the group Public Enemy, said in 2003, “Back then, black folks were called negroes. But James said you can say it loud, that being black is a great thing instead of something you have to apologize for.”
“I was able to speak to the country during the crisis,” Brown later remembered, “and that was one of the things that meant the most to me.”
Watch excerpts from James Brown’s historic Boston concert at WGBH.
Images and Sources
Soldier standing guard photo: Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress
Soldier standing guard photo license: public domain