Watch: Kevin White and James Brown at the Garden

Shortly after Kevin White, Boston’s mayor from 1968-1984, passed away on Friday evening, I tripped across this video on Twitter of James Brown and the mayor addressing the crowd at the Boston Garden on the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, April 6, 1968. The episode, now referred to as “The Night James Brown Saved Boston,” has become well known, but that doesn’t make it any less riveting to watch today.

The back story was that the Boston Garden, concerned about violence following Dr. King’s death, cancelled the James Brown concert that had been scheduled for that night. A black city councilman named Tom Atkins realized immediately what would happen if the concert wasn’t saved. “He sketched it in graphic terms for the Mayor,” J. Anthony Lukas reported in his epic tome on the busing era, Common Ground. Atkins told White:

“It’s too late to cancel it; the word wouldn’t get around in time. There’ll be thousands of black teenagers down at the Garden this evening, and when they find those gates are locked they’re going to be pretty pissed off. King’s death and Brown’s cop-out will get all mixed up together and we’ll have an even bigger riot than last night’s — only this time it’ll be in the heart of downtown.”

Atkins convinced White that not only did he have to make sure the concert was re-instated, but that the show should be televised so that people would stay home and watch it on TV instead of rushing out to the streets. For his part, James Brown was skittish: televising the show would breach an exclusive contract he had to broadcast a New York concert. Brown was also concerned that, with word that the concert had been canceled out, he’d lose his cut of the gate. White swooped in, even ensuring Brown the $60,000 guarantee the singer asked for without really having any idea where the money would come from. The whole tale is remarkable — all the way down to how White finally did finagle the money — and worth a read in Common Ground (start on page 32). With all that swirling in the background, the video of Atkins introducing White — and James Brown jumping in — becomes even more incredible.