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The Godfather of Soul Saves Boston

Michael May

Jim Gates

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The Godfather of Soul
(AFP/Getty Images)
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James Brown at the Boston Gardens, April 5, 1968
(WGBH Boston)

On April 5, 1968, the country was reeling from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before. Riots had broken out in several cities, and many more were teetering on the edge of chaos.

In Boston, James Brown was scheduled to play to a sold-out crowd at the 14,000-seat Boston Gardens. It had the potential to be a flash point for rioting right in the heart of downtown Boston.

Music journalist Tom Vickers, 18-years-old at the time, was one of the few white people with a ticket to the concert that night. He grew up in Boston, and was a huge fan of R&B music. He was well aware how much tension there was between whites and blacks in the city.

For the most part, whites stayed in south Boston and blacks stayed in a neighborhood called Roxbury. "If you were black and found on the streets of Southie," he remembers, "you were lucky to make it home alive. And frankly, the inverse was true in Roxbury. If you were white and walking the streets there, you could feel the danger. It was palpable."

The tension had been escalating in the mid-60s as the city began to desegregate its public schools. The mayoral race in 1967 pitted a liberal reformer, Kevin White, against Louise Day Hicks, an opponent of desegregation. Hicks ran under the evasive slogan "You know where I stand." White won the race by less than 12,000 votes.

So Boston's race relations where already on a short fuse when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed on April 4. John "Jabo" Starks, the drummer in James Brown's band, was headed to Boston when he heard the news. "That was such a tragedy," says Starks. "It was sad, and it was shameful. It was like I was drained. You try to better yourself, and then this happens."

Riots broke out across the country, and some feared Boston would be next. Vickers remembers there was some rioting in Roxbury Friday night, but it was quickly stopped -- "yet there was ongoing fear that there would be massive rioting," he says. "Whites were worried that the African American community would spread to other neighborhoods in Boston and just tear up the place."

In fact, city leaders were terrified that the James Brown concert could bring the violence right into the heart of downtown. Mayor Kevin White and Boston's first black city council member, Thomas Atkins, debated whether to cancel the concert. In a forthcoming VH1 documentary about that night, White says: "His concert -- we thought it 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."

Council member Atkins had worse fears. "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."

The city had only a few hours to find a compromise.

Meanwhile, Vickers went to a somber memorial for King that afternoon. After, he went to the Boston Gardens and asked a policeman if the show was still going to happen. "He said, 'Yeah, it's going to happen, but if I were you, I would turn in your tickets and get a refund,'" says Vickers. "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.'"

The mayor held a press conference to encourage people to stay home and watch the concert. Vickers cashed in his tickets at the box office, as did thousands of others.

That night, around 9 p.m., Brown walked on stage at the Boston Gardens -- and the mayor was by his side. White addressed the crowd of around 2,000 and a row of television cameras. "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 all help. I'm here to ask you to stay with me as your mayor, and make Dr. King's dreams a reality in Boston.

"This is our city, and our future is in our hands -- today, tomorrow and the days that follow. So all I ask you tonight is this: is look each at other, and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, here in Boston, we will honor Dr. King's legacy in peace."

And with that, Brown, dressed in all black, grabs the microphone and takes over. Starks was on the drums. He said that as soon as he dug into the groove the intense sadness he was feeling lifted. "I love to play," he says, "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."

Vickers and his family crowded around the TV and watched in amazement. "James Brown always gave his all," he says. "But that night, there was an emotional edge to it. He seemed totally present, in the moment, and giving 110 percent."

Then, just as James Brown donned his golden cape, a young man jumped on stage. And in an instant, a white police officer rushed in and threw the man back into the audience. It looked like the beginning of a riot -- a riot that the entire city of Boston would witness on live television. The band stopped playing.

"They were just venting anger," says Jabo Starks. "They just wanted to be close to him, but I know when police started to throw them off stage, it became touchy."

Brown told the police officers to leave and shook hands with another teenager who had jumped on stage. Suddenly fans swarmed the singer. "It was almost at a point where something bad was going to happen," says Starks. "And he said 'Let me talk to them.' He had that power."

Within minutes, the Godfather of Soul cleared the stage with these words: "You're making me look bad... You're not being fair to yourself or your own race. I asked the police to step back, because I figured I could get some respect from my own people. It doesn't make sense. Now, are we together or we ain't? Hit the thing, man... one-two-three." And the band kicked back in.

That night, there was rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities. Dozens of people were killed. Huge areas of Newark, N.J., Detroit and Washington, D.C., went up in flames. But Boston remained quiet.

Comments

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  • By Jim Moher

    From Savannah, GA, 08/28/2014

    This story surprised me as well. Although from the Boston area, I was a student at Ole Miss and had just arrived in New Orleans when word of King's death spread. Having little access to TV, I only caught snatches of the news, and for years understood there were some riots and fires in Boston. It appears they were localized and did not reoccur. This story is amazing. Fortunately, I can reach out to some friends to flesh out the details. The city went through some tough times in the next decade, but its astonishing solidarity over last year's terrorist bombing indicates a community that grew together not apart. Oh, New Orleans remained calm, if tense at times.

    By Clarice Holmes

    From Los Angeles, CA, 02/01/2014

    I am 70 years old and never heard any of this. I just happened to be researching for a Black History Program at church and happened upon this story. I am telling it this year to our members! Wow!The good stuff people do is seldom told....what a shame.

    By Linda Bourque

    From CA, 08/09/2008

    I was a student at Indiana University when Tom Atkins was president of the student body. I only learned today that he died in June of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was an outstanding leader at IU and obviously continued to be an outstanding leader throughout his life.

    By Elizabeth Brackman

    From Tampa, FL, 07/12/2008

    I was moved to tears by the power of a lone musician and his music to save a city from scarring itself. Born two years + a little after this incredible night, I was shocked that I had not heard this story from my parents as I was growing up. I'm glad I listened today. Thanks for the reminder of our better angels.

    By Ted Myllmaki

    From Rockalnd, MA, 04/05/2008

    I was a member of the 102 Combat Support Squadron of the Massachusetts Air National Guard that night, we were 'activated' and call to the base (then located at Logan Airport) and told to "prepare for riot duty". There was a steady trickle of fellow airmen coming in and we were not sure what was going to happen, but we were uneasy about the situation and monitoring things on the radio. When the Army Guard showed up with trucks and rifles, we were convinced that things were escalating and we might actually be put on the streets. Fortuantely, the James Brown concert at Boston Garden kicked in, the riots never materialized and we never let the airport. We found a little black and white TV set in the Mess Hall (I was a cook!) and spent the night watching James Brown. As I recall, they replayed the concert severl times that night and I never got tired of hearing "Papa's go a brand new bag" over and over again.

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