In a decade marred by tumult, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr had emerged as the charismatic voice of the civil rights movement, advancing the cause with a resonant message of nonviolence and peaceful civil disobedience. He was the loudspeaker for thousands crying out, the channel through which the civil rights movement found unity. With King's assassination on April 4, 1968, the world lost among its most fearless leaders.
News of King's assassination sent shockwaves across the country and people took to the streets in frustration. As day broke in Boston on Friday, April 5, government officials nervously anticipated another night of unrest, yet an unlikely keeper of the peace came forward and helped unite a community: James Brown.
Variously dubbed "the Godfather of Soul," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business" and "Mr. Dynamite" among other monikers, Brown had been scheduled to perform in the city's center, at the Boston Garden. Amid great civil strife, Mayor Kevin White faced a quandary: aggravate a tense situation by canceling the event for overtly racial fears or dismiss concerns expressed by law enforcement. His decision came at the suggestion of young black councilman Tom Atkins, who recommended broadcasting the concert, bringing James Brown's stage show into homes across Boston. They hoped the entertainment would keep people glued to their TVs, not roaming the streets. Public TV station WGBH broadcast the concert after the city negotiated contractual terms with Brown, who had a non-compete agreement for a forthcoming television performance. "All of us are here tonight to listen to a great talent: James Brown," mayor White announced from the stage before the concert. "But we're also here to pay tribute to one of the greateast Americans: Dr. Martin Luther King."
That night, Brown took the stage as planned, delivering a charged set of R&B, reflecting his explosive and singular transformation of gospel fervor. That intensity, the precision choreography and dynamic showmanship did more that captivate those in attendance and watching across WGBH's broadcast area. Browns presence on the stage transcended the role of musician and entertainer.
"He knew that he was taking that anger and that fury, and channeling it into a show business performance," says Rev. Al Sharpton in the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston. "But he also made the choice that that was the only thing he could do to show respect to Dr. King and to save people’s lives that night.
"So even though their were those that criticized him for trivializing this to a show, he understood that it may be a trivial way of saving lives and preserving Dr. King’s legacy," says Sharpton. "But however he did it, he did it."
Months later, in August 1968, Brown released "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," a sentiment as revolutionary as the horn bleats, guitar riffs and rumbling bass and drums that supported Brown and his vocal chorus on this exhortation to self-reliance. James Brown was inducted with the first-ever class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees in 1986, and is featured in the Hall of Fame's soul collection.