How a Camelot Prince and the Godfather of Soul Brought Healing After MLK Assassination

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

By Al Perrotta Published on April 4, 2018

Upon news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., virtually all major cities in America erupted in violence. Cities like Washington, Detroit and Newark burst into flames and rage.

Yet in the hours after that awful news broke one city was spared the destruction and on the next night another city was calmed by two men who could be no more different.

One was a prince of Camelot, the New England-born wealthy, white product of America’s most powerful and prominent political family. The other, the Godfather of Soul, a black man born dirt poor in Georgia.

Robert F. Kennedy Soothes Indianapolis

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was in Indianapolis when he got word that Dr. King had been killed. He was set to deliver a routine campaign speech on his quest for the 1968 Democratic nomination. King’s shocking murder made it anything but routine.

Police told Kennedy they might not be able to protect him at the inner city event. He carried on.

RFK climbed up on a flatbed truck. The crowd did not yet know what had happened in Memphis. Kennedy would break the heartbreaking news. But it’s what he said in the next five minutes, in the wake of the anguished cry of the crowd, in the context of his own personal grief, that stands as one of the most beautiful testaments to love in the face of hate ever uttered on our soil.

For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

The reference to the slain President — his beloved brother — seemed to diffuse the crowd’s anger, leaving only sorrow. Kennedy would quote his favorite poet, Aeschylus.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Robert F. Kennedy called on the crowd to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Indianapolis listened. Their streets remained peaceful.

WATCH:

 

Meanwhile, Boston was starting to burn.

James Brown Saves Boston

Soul legend James Brown was scheduled to perform at Boston Garden the night of April 5. Mayor Kevin White planned on cancelling the show because of the violence the night before and well-founded worries night two would be worse. Boston was racially on edge in the best of times. It wouldn’t need much to explode. However, a young African American city councilman Tom Atkins realized cancelling the concert was a very bad move. Thousands of young African-American men were pumped up about seeing Brown. Cancelling the gig on them, on top of the King murder, would be pouring gasoline on the fire. Literally.

Atkins hit on a brilliant idea. Hold the concert, but find a way to mount a free, live broadcast of the show. Hopefully, this would keep Boston residents at home in front of their TVs instead of rioting in the streets.

Atkins and White convinced public TV station WGBH to air the concert. But Brown posed another problem. He had a non-compete contract to do a live television concert in another city. Televising the Boston show would cost him $60,000. White agreed to pay Brown $15,000 to help cover the loss.

Mayor White opened the show, dedicating the night to Dr. King. “24 hours ago,” he said, “Martin Luther King died for all of us, black or white, that we may live together in harmony without violence and in peace. … So all I’m asking tonight is this: To let us look at each other, here in the Gardens, and back at home, and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.”

 

 

Then James Brown got to work. Legend holds that each time James Brown performed he’d lose 10 pounds of sweat. That night in Boston, with so much on the line, it might have been 20. Watch as he urges Boston, as only he could, to “Get It Together.”

 

The show rolled on. Then, a potentially catastrophic moment. A handful of mostly black young males began climbing the stage mid-concert. Boston cops, lily white, began shoving them off the stage. The sight of white cops manhandling black men a day after the murder of Martin Luther King shocks even 50 years later. Imagine the reaction of those watching at home or in the arena. The time bomb was a few ticks from zero.

Brown moved quickly to defuse the explosive situation. Keeping his cool, Brown first told the cops to stand down. He then urged those swarming the stage as well. “Step down, now, be a gentleman. … now I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”

In a decades long career chock full of stunning highlights, this would be James Brown’s greatest moment. The show went on without incident, only the excitement of Brown’s music.

 

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business worked overtime. And it worked. Rather than take to the streets, Boston’s black community took in the TV show. Boston officials, who had awoken in a “Cold Sweat” after that first night of violence breathed easier. The city had gotten the message. Boston saw no more rioting. Blacks and whites did “Get It Together.”

 

Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream and co-author of the upcoming Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration, which is out May 21 from Regnery, but available now for pre-order on Amazon.com.

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