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Music

How James Brown helped keep the peace after the death of Martin Luther King

Although James Brown was known for his explosive onstage persona, earning the nickname ‘Mr. Dynamite’ in the process, he wasn’t always such an explosive character. He could also be as ice-cool as anyone could only dream of being. One night, he helped to alleviate the quickly disintegrating social fabric of America, by soothing the fury of many after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The morning after King’s assassination, on April 5th, 1968, the authorities of Boston, Massachusetts, were bracing themselves for another night of protests and rioting. City officials were preparing for a crisis, as were many in city halls across the US. The alarm was caused by President Johnson declaring that the country was in a state of emergency.

However, that night, Boston’s officials would manage to save themselves another night of horror by enlisting the help of James Brown. Via his massive fame and the respect that came with it, Brown would help to stem the tide of insurrection and effectively do the job of the Boston administration for them.

That night, Brown was due to appear at the Boston Garden, and it had been in the calendar for a long time prior to the murder of Dr. King. After a tense night of rioting and fires in some of the predominantly African-American neighbourhoods of the city on the night of King’s death, Mayor Kevin White considered cancelling Brown’s show, which he feared would bring havoc to the city centre.

White found himself in a rut. He feared angering African-American Bostonians by cancelling the show, or embittering the racist elements of the city by ignoring their ‘fears’. Enter young African-American councillor Tom Atkins. He lodged the idea that the show should go on, but should be aired live on TV, hoping to keep Bostonians at home.

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Atkins and White managed to get the television station WGBH to air the concert at short notice, but getting Brown onside was an entirely different matter. Brown had already signed a non-compete agreement with another station for an upcoming TV concert, and if the Boston show was aired he risked losing $60,000. Left with no choice, the Mayor agreed to alleviate Brown’s financial worries.

Luckily for everyone involved, the stunt worked. Boston enjoyed a normal Friday evening. However, there was a flashpoint, when things risked getting really out of hand. A group of fans began to climb on the stage during the show, and white policemen began violently pushing them back. Brown immediately knew where this was heading, so he urged the police to calm and back away before addressing the crowd.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute now WAIT!” Brown declared. “Step down, now, be a gentleman….Now I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”

Peace was restored, and Brown continued his show peacefully in honour of the hero of the civil rights movement, Dr. King. A fitting tribute to the master of peaceful protest, this is just another reason why James Brown is hailed as a legend.

Watch the show in full below.