Features

Boston Tea Party

1968

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

In Boston, three events from March and April 1968 contributed to long-term change. One signaled a cultural revolution. It began at a live-rock club, the Boston Tea Party, where Led Zeppelin, Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground, Cream, and other now-famous groups performed. The club's entrance sported panels featuring the names of those who had given light to the world-Prometheus, Edison, and others-but the club itself flickered with strobe lights, kaleidoscopic patterns, pulsating blobs of color, and shots of Campbell Soup cans.

The Tea Party gained significance beyond its location on March 15 when local radio station WBCN began broadcasting a daily seven-hour nighttime program from the club. WBCN to that point was FM-standard 40 years ago: It played classical music and lost money. The AM dial, meanwhile, emphasized two-minute pop "bubblegum" tunes. But when WBCN starting making big bucks with longer, darker, harder rock songs, other stations in what was called "underground radio" followed, reinventing FM radio as they went.

Another event threatened to be a disaster. On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, rioting in 60 cities across the nation cost lives and destroyed property. Racially tense Boston was poised to join the throng. Mayor Kevin White was particularly worried about a concert by James Brown, the "godfather of soul," scheduled for the Boston Garden that evening. White later said, "His concert we thought might bring as many as 15 or 20 thousand black people from the community, mostly young people, into the city. It just had too much emotion in it not to decide whether that would be a problem."

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White, working with a local television station, decided to let the concert go on but have it broadcast live, with people urged to stay home. The plan worked, with only 2,500 ticketholders coming to the event but tens of thousands watching on television-and no riot. Brown occasionally paused in his frenetic singing to offer soothing words: He spoke of how he once sat disconsolately in front of a radio station, but "now I own that station. You know what that is? That's black power." The title of a recent VH1 documentary reveals the outcome with only slight hyperbole: "The Night James Brown Saved Boston."

A third event led to a counter-revolution involving urban renewal, which was all the rage from the 1950s through the mid-1960s. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) had pioneered in replacing old Boston buildings with shopping centers, luxury apartments, and parking garages. But in April 1968, community activists learned that a parking garage was to be built at a corner where houses had recently been leveled. On April 26 several hundred people set up a "Tent City" at that corner and lived there until the end of the month.

The protesters received wide publicity and support. Musicians came with guitars, saxophones, and drums. Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, owner of a nearby restaurant, delivered soul food to the protesters. They took down their tents on April 30 in response to a police order, but Boston's building plans changed and urban renewal advocates began listening to criticisms from both the left and the right, with books by Jane Jacobs (see WORLD, Nov. 17, 2007) increasingly read and understood.

The other events of March and April also had long-range consequences. Boston's avoidance of racial troubles in 1968 may have made city officials overconfident: Forced busing of students began in 1974 and led to unrest and violence around public schools. By 2006 non-Hispanic whites made up 54 percent of Boston's population but only 14 percent of its public-school students. Musically, the Boston Tea Party closed after a few years but Boston went on to be one of the birthplaces of hardcore punk. In the 1990s bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys made Boston a leading third wave ska and punk scene.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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