“On April 5, 1968, less than 24 hours after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the city of Boston was in a state of turmoil. When James Brown arrived at the airport to play his already scheduled show he waswarned that the mayor, fearing further unrest among the African American community, planned to cancel the show. Brown assured the mayor that the consequences would be much worse if the concert was called off. Not only did the show go on as planned, public television station WGBH broadcast the whole thing. It’s an incredible historical document and a fantastic performance by James Brown, who dedicated the show to Dr. King’s memory and brought the raw emotions within himself and his community to a searing head. At one point the restless crowd swarms the stage and amidst the mayhem James Brown tells the cops to stay back and calmly talks the crowd back into their seats. ‘This isn’t how black people should act.’ Riveting viewing.”
CounterPuncher Kevin Alexander Gray made a reference to this very brief version of Brown’s Boston Garden concert in a recent contribution to the newsletter. Such brief references are common: James Brown, fearlessly going on with a great show, calming the restless crowd, saving the City of Boston. (A DVD of the high-energy performance is for sale.) There’s no disputing that Brown’s appearance calmed the crowd in theterrible hours following the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. There’s also no disputing that the mayor feared “further unrest,” to put it mildly. Nor is there any dispute that Brown’s performance, as usual, was riveting.
But the backstory is much more interesting and amazing. It’s chronicled in detail in J. Anthony Lucas’s great 1986 book “Common Ground,”the classic story of liberal Boston’s doomed attempt to desegregate its public schools by forced busing. Common Ground weaves the stories of three prototypical Boston families — Yankee, Black and Irish — with fascinating profiles of Boston’s leading citizens at the time and their roles in the busing fiasco sprinkled throughout.
Early in Common Ground Lukas describes newly-elected Mayor Kevin White’sinitial handling of the aftermath of the King assassination in Boston. On the advice by his young top aide Barney Frank, White restrainedBoston’s official response to loud crowds of blacks in the streets in those post-assassination days on grounds that sending in cops might well makethings worse. To avoid property damage and potential violence, Mayor Whiteencouraged black leaders and ministers to do what they could to keep the raw emotions from exploding.
White, a reformist liberal who had narrowly defeated populist anti-busing Irishwoman Louise Day Hicks for mayor, was trying hard to liveup to his campaign promises about “profound and massive change” in public attitudes toward race in Boston. He appointed several blacks to top cityposts, but had not yet made many inroads in Boston’s black population, centered, predominantly, in Roxbury.
When the city announced that James Brown’s previously scheduled concertwould have to be canceled, disk jockey James “Early” Byrd, warned the mayorthat if Brown’s concert was canceled thousands of young blacks would be“pretty pissed off,” and the potential for riots in the heart of downtownBoston would increase. Black city councilman (and, later, NAACP GeneralCounsel) Tom Atkins suggested that the concert be reinstated and that it becarried on the local PBS station, along with an appeal for (black) kids tostay home and watch it on TV for free.
Neither Mayor White nor Barney Frank had ever heard of James Brown.White kept referring to Brown as “James Washington.” Frank thought Brown was a football player.
When PBS agreed to air Brown’s concert, Byrd, who was also Brown’s Boston area representative, strenuously objected: “You can’t do that. Jamesis in New York to tape a show. They’re giving him a pile of money, but onthe condition he doesn’t do any other television on the East Coast until after it airs. You put this thing on TV here and you’ll violate James’scontract. He isn’t going to go for that.”
Besides the contract problems, Byrd pointed out that if the concert wasbroadcast on PBS, “…it’s going to kill our gate. We’re going to take abath on this thing. Who’s going to take care of James?”Atkins told White that the City of Boston would have to guarantee Brown’s gate. After some heated disputes, White agreed on the condition that the deal remain secret. “If word ever gets out we underwrote a goddamn rock star with city money, we’ll both [White and Atkins] be dead politically.”
But Brown himself nixed the deal: “No way. They’ll sue me in New York.”Atkins pleaded with Brown, arguing that it was the only way to “save this city.” By this time, people had heard the concert was cancelled and had already begun demanding ticket refunds.
Brown and his staff did some financial calculations and concluded tha tto put on the show under these conditions the city would have to pony up $60k (Several hundred thousand in today’s dollars) to cover Brown’s gate. Lucas describes Mayor White’s predictable reaction: “’Sixty thousand!’ the Mayor exclaimed. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been killed and here were two black guys putting the squeeze on him for $60,000. One of them, he’d been told, was the highest paid black performer in America who made $2 million a year, had a Victorian mansion, a Rolls Royce, two Cadillacs, two radio stations, a record company, a production staff of forty-two [and his own Lear Jet], and now he was worrying about the gate from one measly concert!”
But time was short and White didn’t have many options, so he reluctantly agreed, and the concert went on. As expected, the audience was fairly small, about 2,000. Introducing Brown, Atkins told the crowd that Brown was donating a record and $2,500 to Mayor White’s Martin Luther King Trust Fund.
After introducing an amusingly uncomfortable Mayor White to the mostly black audience as “a swingin’ cat,” and “together,” Mr. Dynamite did his incomparable thing.
No serious riots materialized. Most of Roxbury’s residents stayed home and watched Brown for free on TV. Some say Brown’s amazing Boston Garden performance catapulted him into the musical big-leagues.
Three days later it came time to pay Brown’s gate.Boston City Attorney Herb Gleason argued, “We [the City] never really gave the guarantee.” Besides, the City of Boston’s treasury didn’t have $60,000 sitting around uncommitted.
But Atkins insisted that a deal is a deal. If Brown didn’t get hismoney, Atkins warned, he’d go public with the whole affair and everybodywould look bad. (If we had public servants like this nowadays, more would get done. Not only can reformers in official positions get lots ofconcessions from their mainstream counterparts by threatening exposure, they can, but seldom do, actually expose and blow the proverbial lid off of the corruption.)
Mayor White was again forced to get creative and go to the only sourceof money available to him: The Vault, an unofficial but highly influentialgroup of Boston’s wealthiest Brahmen.
Originally formed to deal with Boston’s civic bankruptcy in the 50s, themembers of The Vault met regularly at the top floor of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company and included most of Boston’s biggest corporatechieftains, including its erstwhile head Ralph Lowell, scion of the textile magnate the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, is named after.
White boldly asked The Vault for a million dollars. Lowell said thatsounded a tad high. White then added, “the city is at stake here, sowhatever you think you can do…” The Vault soon contacted the Mayor’s office and said $100,000 was on account.
Vault member Gilbert ‘Eph’ Catlin later explained that the Mayor“persuaded us that if we didn’t come up with the money, the blacks weregoing to burn the city down. So we thought we better do something.”The pragmatic members of The Vault obviously saw the $100k as an insurance policy of sorts.
The $100k became the seed money for Mayor White’s “Special Fund,”controlled by Barney Frank. Brown got $15k from the city, not the original$60k, because the city put pressure on the Boston Garden to waive its shareof the receipts. The rest of the insurance money went to various local liberal outreach and community aid projects.
But, as Lucas points out, the Special Fund also “secretly paid a smallcadre of black informants and operatives who, had they been on the official payroll, might have been accused of ‘selling out’ to the establishment.”The Godfather of Soul certainly deserves credit for helping keep Boston from going up in flames. But Lucas’s more complete version of the storymakes Brown come off more as a sharp businessman than a public-spirited citizen who wanted to help his people.
Lucas’s fascinating, well-researched story has broader significance, too. How many other liberal outfits which on the surface appear to behelping philanthropies or public benefits, are secretly funded and used bythe wealthy and the political establishment, sometimes even unknowingly, tokeep an eye out for—and control, if necessary— rabble rousers? Or have such subtle forms of intelligence gathering gone into the dustbin of history now that corporations and government agencies have easy access to everybody’s communications?
MARK SCARAMELLA is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org