By Meghan Hockridge, Staff Writer
Fifty-three years ago, on April 5th, 1968, James Brown had a hard decision to make. Would he take the stage at the Boston Garden, or would the show be canceled? It was the night after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. People all around the country were heartbroken and angry. At a time when racial tensions in our country were at an all-time high, James Brown decided to be seen. That night, he played one of the best and most important shows of his life.
SCRAMBLING BEFORE THE SHOW
Earlier that day, the young Mayor Kevin White was contemplating how to best keep the city safe. Already having seen the riots take place the night before, he was afraid of the violence continuing at Brown’s concert. At first, he thought it best to cancel the show entirely. That morning, city council member Thomas Atkins received a call from the beloved radio host, James “Early” Byrd of WILD, saying that word was out that the show might be canceled and that it would be a mistake to do so. Atkins came together with Mayor White and convinced him not to cancel the show, the city needed James Brown. He even proposed televising the concert so people all over Boston could experience it. Atkins and White convinced WGBH to televise the show, no small feat for a station that had primarily only broadcasted live Pops and other symphony concerts.
After news got out about the show would be televised people started returning their tickets, knowing they would see it from their own homes. Brown expected to lose $60,000 because of this. The city offered to try to pay back the amount lost, although both Mayor White and James Brown knew this might not be possible.
JAMES BROWN PROVIDED HEALING IN A TIME OF NEED
Brown took the stage anyway, pushing his fears aside to be with a community who needed him. The show was going off without a hitch. White addressed the crowd just before the set started, and WGBH’s broadcast was up and running smoothly. People all over the city tuned in. Brown was giving the crowd everything he had, and they were loving him right back. The music was healing a community in the heart of their mourning.
About halfway through the show, people started to rush the stage. Police officers were pushing people back down, but more and more kept coming up. Everyone knew tensions were high, and this moment could have set the entire show off into chaos. And maybe it would have, if it weren’t for James Brown. Saying, “wait a minute, wait a minute, that’s alright,” the singer stopped the music and asked the cops to step back. He threw his arms around some of those onstage and asked them politely to get back down off the stage. Brown remained completely composed and calm in a moment that very well could have changed the entire night. He asked, “Are we together,” maintaining the peace and bringing everyone closer that night. James Brown used his music as a tool for peace, and the vibrations were felt all across the city.
For more on this incredible night, check out the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.