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James Brown Kept the Peace in Boston After MLK Was Assassinated. Is Such Solidarity Possible Today?

Is a moment of solidarity possible in an age of decentralized media?
Thousands of people lining the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, for the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 9th, 1968.

Thousands of people lining the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, for the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 9th, 1968.

The assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1968, sent shockwaves throughout the United States.

Rioting and civil disturbances roiled New York, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and a slew of other cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who quickly denounced King's murder, deployed the National Guard to help quell the unrest as local law enforcement "[holed] up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war," as he told his aides. King, a legendary advocate of non-violent resistance, had been nearing his breaking point in the months leading up to his assassination; after his death in Memphis, American cities swelled with his unexpressed rage, the smoldering racial tensions set aflame.

Except, somehow, in Boston. A city with a complicated legacy of race and discrimination, racial animosity had been driven to the forefront of public conversation by the school desegregation efforts initiated in 1965 and its outsized impact on the 1967 mayoral race that saw Democrat reformer Kevin White narrowly defeat staunch desegregation opponent Louise Day Hicks. If any city seemed prime for chaos, it was the so-called Hub of the Universe; indeed, the evening of King's death saw fires and riots in majority-black neighborhoods like Roxbury.

Newly minted Mayor White saved the day, but barely: The real hero was Tom Atkins, the African-American attorney and Boston city councilor who persuaded the city government to broadcast legendary soul singer James Brown's April 5th show at the Boston Garden for free in an effort to keep their fellow Bostonians glued to their televisions and radios rather than rioting in the streets. Public broadcaster WGBH picked up the stream, and, the story goes, the show had exactly the intended effect. "No matter what any other community might do," White said during pre-show remarks, "here in Boston, we will honor Dr. King's legacy in peace."

Given King's legacy of non-violent protest, the Brown show is one of those beloved moments of clarity amid a major flashpoint of social upheaval, a silver lining during a dark moment in history that organizers, activists, historians, and political scientists can look to as a sign that solidarity is possible in even the most fractured of civil societies.

But 50 years later, the U.S. finds itself contorted by another once-in-a-lifetime moment of sociopolitical reckoning—and it's not clear that a moment of clarity like that orchestrated by Atkins, White, and Brown would even be possible today. There are a few reasons, most notably the decline in live concert attendance wrought by rising ticket prices and the explosion in competing media options for would-be concert-viewers. To that latter point, the constant churn of decentralized content simply makes unilateral symbols of solidarity near impossible. White, Atkins, Brown, and WGBH managed to effectively control the public through the media. Given the decline in traditional TV viewership—not to mention Americans' lack of trust in media institutions—it's unlikely that would happen again.

The death of Martin Luther King Jr. has always been taken as a moment of countrywide solidarity, an affirmation of the ideals King fought for and we've embraced as canon in the last half-century. But there's at least some hope for a moment of solidarity in an age of decentralized media: In the aftermath of the disastrous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017, thousands of people showed up to counter-protest a gaggle of 33 white nationalists. The city? Boston.