AFTER the assisnation of Martin Luther King Jr. last Thursday evening ghetto-cities across the country braced themselves for large scale riots Every possible preventive measure was taken to minimize the violence: King's non-violent legacy was invoked; Johnson cancelled his trip to Hawaii and called for unitv; a four p.m. curfew was declared in Washington; police, National Guardsmen, and Federal troops poured into the ghettos.
But after a painful summer of experience, a number of government officials had learned that armed repression often did little more than spread the fires of the riot-revolt. In a rare movement of governmental inventiveness Mayor Kevin White produced and directed one of the most daring scenarios in an effort to keep Roxbury off the riot casuality list.
White faced an inflammable situation when he heard that James Brown, king of soul music, was scheduled to perform in Boston Saturday night. To allow the event to occur without intervention would have been to set the stage for a major incident. All the ingredients were there: a large group of young blacks gathered together, King's murderer still on the loose, and the super-charged excitement of Brown's performance to provide the spark. To close the show down, on the other hand, was equally dangerous. There might easily have been a riot if Brown were not permitted to perform because of an order from White's office. Instead, White used the event to his own advantage, making it a city-sponsored production, and televising it a total of three times to keep Boston's Black population at home glued to the tube instead of out throwing bricks in the streets.
It was all reminiscent of Peter Watkins's year-old movie Privilege, in which English politics are controlled by a charismatic rock singer whom the state exploits through mass media. In Boston, the major roles were played by White, Brown, and city councillor Tom Atkins. The strategy was simple. City Hall helped pay the Boston Garden rental, WGBH televised the show twice in the course of the same evening, and Brown was willing to have his talent used to keep the ghetto quiet. White made a public plea that people who had already bought their tickets return them and watch the show from the safety of their homes. Many did and the total attendance was surprisingly small--somewhere around four thousand.
THE show itself was an unbelievable demonstration of how a man like James Brown coupled with a mass media could be used for political purposes. When Brown arrived on stage he introduced Tom Atkins, one of the few Black politicians in Boston. Brown told the fans that Atkins was the greatest and that they should be proud of him; Atkins reciprocated. Then, as Atkins, in an unnecessarily formal fashion was introducing "The Honorable..." Brown broke in with a more fitting lead in: "When I got into town White called me up and believe me this man is 'Together.' So let's hear it for Swingin Kev." With that the mavor bopped up onto the podium and shook hands with Brown. Saying that he had come "like everyone else to hear James." (which wasn't entirely true since he ran back to City Hall immediately following his address). White recalled the death of King only hours before and asked the people to help him show the country that no matter what happened anywhere else Boston was going to stay cool.
Brown was candid with the audience. He told them straight out that he hadn't been bought to keep Boston quiet. "I'm my own man," Brown said, "and no one can tell me what to do." He told the audience how he used to work outside a radio station in Atlanta shining shoes and how he had recently bought it, he told them how he was introducing soul music around the country in places where it had never been on the air, then Atkins told about the performer's philanthropy. But even after the meticulous display of credentials, Brown continued to worry out loud about his ride. "I'm a Soul Brother and don't you forget it... I don't want to be one of those people who get lost in society and sit back and wonder what is going on down there. If the Black man has a problem, it's my problem. I was born in a ghetto and I'm not going to forget it."
The performance was electrifying. What with his screaming, soft shoe, and a little bugaloo, Brown had the audience hypnotized. One song followed another without a break; Brown ended the show about seven times in the course of the evening and then kept right on going. You could feel him go beyond exhaustion, beyond his reserve until there was nothing left but the writhing, pulsating beat of a man who couldn't stop.
Near the end of the show people started jumping up on the stage just to touch him, shake his hand, or be near him. Plainclothesmen and the police pushed fans back into the audience and Brown kept right on singing. Then between two numbers he came forward and started shaking hands. People wouldn't let go of him while more and more tried to jump up on the stage. It became clear that this was not just an ordinary James Brown performance. Normally he would not have let people charge the podium, but the show had turned into a test of his ability to control the mob--something he can probably do better than a squad of metropolitan police.
FINALLY Brown asked the police to step back. A couple of dozen kids immediately surrounded him and it looked like all hell was going to break loose. But in the midst of it all Brown was still in control. He asked the mob to sit down. When they didn't he scolded them for being unfair to the others who wanted to watch the rest of the show.
"We're all Black and we have to be together. I asked the police to step back because we can work this out among ourselves. I thought my own people would give me a little respect." With that the deck was cleared and Brown finished the show. At the end of his song the lights went out and he split. Fast.
During the course of the evening, periodic announcements were made that "City Hall reports the State is quiet." White had effectively made a public project out of keeping rioting to a minimum. He had enlisted the support of the people and of James Brown instead of the National Guard and Federal troops. And in spite of a few "minor incidents" (buildings burned and firemen stoned) Boston's was one of the few success stories in the country.
Though the thought of politicians turning to rock groups for popular support is a bit frightening, in this case it proved both a legitimate and a successful method of minimizing violence in the ghetto. But now that the Jefferson Airplane has come out in support of Senator Robert F. Kennedy '48, for President in '68, we may well be witnessing what seemed beyond our wildest hallucination when Watkins made Privilege only a year ago. One can only hope that similar tactics are used only for projects as worthy as keeping the cities from erupting and not for the more invidious purposes easily imaginable.