49 Years Ago Today, James Brown Saved Boston

His city ravaged by violence following Dr. King's assassination, Mayor Kevin White begged the Garden for peace. The Godfather of Soul delivered.

Forty-nine years ago today, Boston was on edge. The 24 hours that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis saw violence erupt in the South End and Roxbury, as riots ravaged Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. A 38-year-old Kevin White would be faced with his first true test as mayor of Boston.

James Brown was scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden the night after King’s death, but fearing further violence, the Garden canceled the show. As City Councillor Tom Atkins frantically explained to White, that was not ideal. From J. Anthony Lukas’ essential Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Common Ground:

“It’s too late to cancel it; the word won’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 the downtown,” Atkins said.

Neither White nor his chief of staff, future Congressman Barney Frank knew who Brown was. “Barney thought he was a football player, the Mayor kept referring to him as ‘James Washington,'” Lukas wrote. But both men recognized the gravity of the situation, and got to work negotiating.

“You get a bunch of 17-year-olds together you never know what’s going to happen,” Frank told the Globe in 2006.

WGBH agreed to televise the concert, but that would violate Brown’s contract with a TV station in New York, which stipulated he wouldn’t do any television on the East Coast until after the show aired. Then there was the problem of the gate—if everyone was watching the concert from home, where would the ticket money come from? “Who’s going to take care of James?” asked Brown’s manager, Greg Moses.

Without any immediate idea where the money would come from, White guaranteed Brown $60,000—later whittled down to $15,000, after the city pressured the Garden to pitch in—to perform. Roughly 2,000 of the Garden’s 14,000 seats were filled when the Godfather of Soul took the stage.

“Just let me say, I had the pleasure of meeting him, and I said, ‘Honorable Mayor,’ and he said, ‘Look man, just call me Kevin,'” Brown said. “And look, this is swingin’ cat. Okay, yeah, give him a big round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. He’s a swingin’ cat.”

Mayor White stepped to the microphone:

All of us are here tonight to listen to a great talent: James Brown. But we’re also here to pay tribute to one of the greatest Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King. Twenty-four hours ago, Dr. King died—for all of us, black and white. That we may live together in harmony without violence and in peace. Now I’m here tonight, like all of you, to listen to James. But I’m also here to ask for your help. I’m here to ask you to stay with me as your mayor, and to make Dr. King’s dreams a reality in Boston. This is our city, and its future is in our hands: tonight, tomorrow, and the days that follow. Martin Luther King loved this city, and it’s up to our generation to prove his faith in us. So all I ask you tonight is this: let us look at each other, here in the Garden and back at home, and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.

“The man is together!” Brown exclaimed, before launching into “Mr. Dynamite.” While there were scattered skirmishes across the city, Boston had averted a riot.