On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, America’s greatest civil-rights leader, was assassinated in Memphis. Violence erupted in major cities across the county as African-Americans, who had already endured so much, reacted to the loss of a leader who was both spiritual and practical. Mayor Kevin White panicked. Although Boston wasn’t literally burning, like Detroit or Los Angeles, it was approaching an ignition point. He considered canceling all public events, including a James Brown concert at the Garden. Fortunately, his advisers suggested that stopping the show would be viewed as yet another stifling of black expression and could easily start the very rioting they’d hoped to avoid. The mayor made history by meeting with Brown and asking if they could work together to keep the peace. He was less lucky with the local affiliates of the three major TV networks, who all declined to broadcast the show, according to music historian Dick Waterman. Instead, the PBS station, WGBH, stepped in so Brown’s music could reach beyond the Garden’s 14,000 seats and into the living rooms of everyone in Greater Boston. The show was an absolute tour de force. Brown soothed his mourning audience by dedicating the concert to Dr. King and delivering a million-watt performance packed with greats: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “That’s Life,” “Try Me,” “Please, Please, Please,” and more. He invited White to speak to the crowd and the cameras. And when police reacted to fans who rushed the stage at one point, Brown assured them he could handle things himself, pleading, successfully, for everyone to return to their seats. On this night, music literally helped determine the course of Boston’s history.
HISTORIC: James Brown saves Boston from the riots