Photo by Emilio Grossi, via the HBO documentary Mr. Dynamite
James Brown is undoubtedly a Herculean figure within the mythos of both American Music and the larger struggle for self-determination in Black America. As such his legacy has often inspired narratives as heroic as the cape he famously donned on stage throughout the years. Brown’s legendary performance at Boston Garden on April 5th, 1968 is commemorated in a documentary titled The Night James Brown Saved Boston and a book sub-titled How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America. While the drama of Brown’s date with destiny are rightly painted in the bold, bright process colors of a 1960s comic, we remember it this way at the risk of obscuring the darkest parts of the story; the great personal danger and the dismissive disrespect Brown faced in taking the stage the night after America lost MLK to an assassin’s bullet. Bostonian and regular Okayplayer contributor Dart Adams takes us into the city’s collective memory of that mythic night, to make sure we never forget behind the cape was a real man, and the choices he wrestled with before stepping into the spotlight 48 years ago today.
Back in 1981, I traveled with my family to visit our relatives in E. Orange and Newark, NJ. I noticed the many shuttered buildings and the ruins of many an old establishment all throughout our stay in New Jersey (especially passing through Trenton) before I asked my mother, What happened there? She explained to me that there were uprisings in numerous cities all over the country following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. I asked her if the same thing happened in Boston and she told me it was spared by a James Brown concert that happened at Boston Garden. She might as well told me Boston was saved by Batman…
In 1968, Boston was a veritable powder keg. Most of Boston’s black population was centralized in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and the South End so most of the community leaders and activists of the time were based there. In the Summer of 1967, there was rioting in Roxbury’s Grove Hall following Boston Police beating and jailing several women, members of the Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW) who had come to the Welfare Office repeatedly that month only to be rebuffed time and again by the management.
Following the police breaking into the office and manhandling the demonstrators, Roxbury residents lined Blue Hill Avenue and confronted police. The police responded with force and the clash led to the police being pelted with debris, bricks and other objects. Afterwards rioting broke out resulting in some storefronts being broken into, looting and the Fire Department had to put out a couple of burning buildings. The Boston Police had recently shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on Blue Hill Avenue so tensions were already high. The black community was at odds with the Boston Police from that moment on and the Boston Police Commissioner and the Mayor were on thin ice with black Boston as it was.
The indifference of the Director of the Welfare Office and failed repeated attempts to get the Mayor’s Office and the Boston Police Department to hear the concerns of the community by the leadership of the Boston NAACP throughout the Summer of 1967 was only one part of the problem. At the same time, the city was pushing initiatives to build new housing in poor income neighborhoods but this resulted in numerous clashes between Boston’s black and latino community based in the South End and Roxbury with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Also there were clashes over the failing schools leading to the formation of Roxbury’s New School For Children and the Roxbury Community School. On all fronts the black and latino community of Boston were distrustful of the Mayor and the many programs and initiatives he pushed.
Things were so tense that Stokely Carmichael traveled to Boston on December 28th, 1967 and met with Boston’s black leadership at the Roxbury YMCA. He informed them that they needed to unite and build an infrastructure to stand against all of their adversaries because he feared that within two years the government would eliminate or neutralize the overwhelming majority of Black radicals, activists and social justice leaders. Boston’s black and latino organizers began to work more closely due to the mounting issues they were facing at the time.
Boston viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as an honorary Bostonian. Both himself and his future wife Coretta Scott lived in the South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood when she was a student at the New England Conservatory and he was pursuing his Masters degree at nearby Boston University. They met and fell in love in jazz-era Boston. At the same time they were living in Boston, the charismatic young Bostonian Nation Of Islam ministers Malcolm X and Louis X were both active in Roxbury as well. While they all had differing philosophies and belief systems, they were all part of the fabric of the city. Even after Martin and Coretta left Boston, the city was still invested in their individual paths. Numerous Boston-era barbershops featured pictures of Malcolm X & Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands as if to hammer home the fact that Boston embraced them both.
When the news broke on April 4 th, 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, the nation was in mourning…