Boston Garden

150 Causeway Street, West End

The former home of the Bruins and the Celtics (Boston’s professional hockey and basketball teams, respectively), the Boston Garden hosted many non-sporting events over its years. Perhaps the most famous was a concert by James Brown on April 5, 1968—one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Boston Garden, 1965, viewed from Canal Street. Note the then-elevated Green Line in front of the Garden. Source: Dirty Old Boston.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, rioting and looting broke out in largely Black and working-class areas of Dorchester, Roxbury and the South End, particularly along Washington Street and Blue Hill Avenue. Given such developments and worries about further violence, the Garden management decided to cancel Brown’s concert.

On the morning of the concert, Councilman Thomas Atkins, Boston’s first and (at the time) only Black member of the City Council, called Mayor Kevin White, telling him that “Something terrible is about to happen.”

Warned of the pending cancellation by James Byrd (aka “The Early Byrd”), a very popular disc jockey on WILD radio, at the time Boston’s premier station for soul and R&B music, Atkins feared that it was too late to cancel the concert for ticket holders to find out. The result would have been thousands of teens outside the Garden’s locked doors at a volatile time.

Atkins persuaded White, who had never even heard of James Brown, to convince the Garden to hold the concert. The city councilor also convinced WGBH, the local public television station, to broadcast the event live.

James Brown was furious with the arrangement when he learned about the details upon arriving at Logan Airport. The music star had just recorded a television show in New York City under the obligation that he not do any more television on the East Coast until after the show had aired. Furthermore, the announcement of that evening’s broadcast on WGBH had led to many ticket holders requesting and receiving refunds.

Upon arriving at the Garden, Brown met Mayor White and demanded $60,000 to cover the lost revenue. White very reluctantly agreed. There is some dispute as to whether or not the City fulfilled its obligation. While White suggested that the City did so, Charles Bobbit, Brown’s personal manger, asserts that they received only $10,000.

City Councilor Thomas Atkins, Mayor Kevin White, and James Brown at the Boston Garden, April 5 , 1968. Source: The Boston Globe.

Although only about 2,000 individuals ended up attending the concert, it had a huge television audience, particularly in Boston’s Black neighborhoods. By all accounts, Brown put on a fantastic show and helped to defuse tensions in the city; despite MLK’s assassination the previous day, that night saw little violence throughout the city.

The rioting in Boston was small and low-level in comparison to what transpired in many other U.S. cities. Whereas Washington, D.C., for example saw 11 killed, 1,113 injured, $24 million in property damage in the days following MLK’s assassination, Boston experienced no deaths, 21 injuries, 30 arrests, and $50,000 in damage.

It is impossible to substantiate the popular claim that the James Brown concert “saved” Boston. No doubt, his concert played a significant role. It is also very likely that interventions, organizing and outreach by key community leaders and activists within Boston’s Black neighborhoods did so as well.

The Boston Garden first opened in 1928, it and closed its doors for the last time in 1995, two days before the replacement arena opened behind it. It was demolished in 1998.

Getting there:

Orange and Green lines to North Station. The replacement arena, called the TD Garden, sits above North Station.

To learn more:

Perry Eaton, “One of Boston’s best concerts ever helped soothe the city after MLK’s assassination, Boston.com, January 18, 2016.

Renée Graham, “After Martin Luther King’s death, James Brown calmed a tense Boston The Boston Globe, April 3, 2018.

David Leaf (director), The Night James Brown Saved Boston (documentary film), David Leaf Productions, 2008.

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Open Vault, WGBH, “James Brown and Mayor Kevin White Address the Crowd at the Boston Garden,” April 5, 1968.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *