Footnote: April 5, 1968 – The Night James Brown Saved Boston

James Brown
The evening of April 5, 1968 has often been called the night James Brown saved Boston. At the time, America was in the throws of bloodshed and violence. Tensions surrounding the civil rights movement had reached a boiling point, the US was still in Vietnam, rioting had broken out across the nation, and only one-day prior, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on the second floor balcony of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. America had been shaken to its core.

Scheduled to take place at the Boston Gardens that evening, the James Brown concert was nearly cancelled by the city out of fear that with an estimated 20,000 concertgoers expected to be in attendance, further violence would ensue. Thankfully, Harvard Law student, Tom Adkins (Boston’s only black city councilman) knew better and advised Boston’s Mayor, Kevin White, that if the black community found out the city wouldn’t allow James Brown to perform in the wake of Dr. King’s death, all hell would surely break loose.

Realizing that James Brown could speak directly to the frustration, anger, shock and sadness of black America at that moment, Mayor White took a chance and decided that the best way to keep people from rioting was to broadcast the concert live and keep them at home watching it.

That night Brown stood as the ultimate example of the self-determination of the civil rights movement. He was truly a self-made American man. It was no secret that Brown had been raised by two aunts in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, that he had a grade 7 education and had spent plenty of time in jail during his youth, but he was an all around entertainer of the people, and when he took to the stage that night, the streets of Boston were still.

It was an incredibly polarizing time and everybody knew it. Major cities were burning themselves to the ground and one of the most prolific civil rights leaders in American history had just been gunned down like a dog. But James Brown understood just how delicate the situation really was, and while he respected Dr. King, he disagreed with him strategically. He knew that rebellious rage out in the streets was not the answer for the American people at that moment, and so he took their anger upon his shoulders. Brown simply had the ability to express the raw feelings of a whole people, and knew how to speak directly to their pain and suffering because he was speaking from experience. Even when the concert threatened to become violent and the Boston police rushed the stage, Brown slowed the moment and held the attention of the crowd, calling upon America to stand still and think.

Reverend Al Sharpton once described Dr. King and James Brown as being the flip side of the same record. Although one said it raw and the other said it polished, they both had the same effect and articulated what a whole nation needed to hear.

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