Mel King: A singular Boston sensation
Former mayor Ray Flynn greets his 1983 opponent Mel King at King's 89th birthday celebration at the McKinley South End Academy in Boston. October 20, 2017. (Photo by Michael Jonas)
Mel King looms as the iconic figure above all others of Black Boston’s last 50 years, but it’s not because he fit any archetypal picture of an outspoken activist or outsized political figure – though he was both.
King was sui generis, making a huge mark across decades of Boston history while cutting a profile so unique that it only added to his legendary status and mystique.
King, who died on Tuesday at age 94, was the farthest thing from the glad-handing Boston pols of his day. But it wasn’t just his sharply left-leaning politics that set him apart. King had little of the conventional charisma associated with those drawn to the campaign hustings and schmoozing for votes.
He did not bring the rhythmic cadence of Black politicians who drew heavily from church oratory. His bearing and speaking style was more Eastern mystic than pew-rattling minister. He extended the gestation period of pregnant pauses in ways unheard of for a candidate for office. But when they came, his words carried a power, authenticity, and sense of moral clarity that rallied supporters to what was as much a cause as a candidate.
His sartorial tastes famously leaned toward dashikis and jumpsuits. He yielded to convention in 1983, when he became the first Black candidate to win a spot in a Boston mayoral final election, donning suits during the campaign, but accenting them with colorful bow ties, a playful wink suggesting he wasn’t fully buying in to what King seemed to view as the soul-sucking ways of the status quo.
He and Ray Flynn emerged from a crowded preliminary election field to vie in the final election, a contest Flynn won by a 2-to-1 margin.
King’s impact on the Boston of today is hard to overstate. He was part of the community-led effort that stopped an interstate highway from gouging a path through the heart of city neighborhoods.
As a state representative in the 1970s, he championed legislation that laid the groundwork for the growth of nonprofit community development corporations in Massachusetts. King was the “father of this movement,” veteran Boston activist Lew Finfer said of the growth of CDCs across the state.
“He convened for many years in the 1980s the ‘Wednesday Morning Breakfast Group,’” said Finfer. “Staff of non-profits, city planners, planning students gathered each week to brainstorm ideas, and Mel generously cooked the breakfast where the policy ideas were cooked too.”
On top of his activism, landmark run for mayor, development of an urban fellow training program at MIT, and a center in his home South End neighborhood to give Boston youth access to computer and tech training, King was a poet who found time to author a book of verse.
One poem, “The Power of Love,” captured both King’s disdain for the ways power is too often wielded and his enduring humanist impulses.
“In the love of power/We worship idols/In the power of love/We worship humanity,” he wrote.
Forty years before “diversity and inclusion” became watchwords of the day, King modeled the ideas in his historic 1983 campaign, which drew overwhelming support from the city’s Black community, but was always focused on bringing together people from disparate backgrounds who lived in what were still very divided Boston neighborhoods. Long before recognizing the country’s multilingual makeup became fashionable, his campaign featured buttons in everything from Mandarin to Hebrew.
His fealty to the “Rainbow Coalition” was genuine, and it made King as comfortable talking to a Teamster in Charlestown as a nursing aide in Roxbury. That regard for those often left out was the common thread between his historic mayoral campaign and that of Flynn, who fashioned himself as a champion of the city’s neighborhoods, which both men said had been left behind amid Kevin White’s city-building focus on downtown development.
It also led to a longstanding warm relationship between the two men despite their high-profile mayoral tilt. Ten years ago, in a characteristic act of grace and magnanimity, King attended a reunion of Flynn campaign workers from the 1983 contest.
In what may have been their last public appearance together, Flynn came to pay tribute to King at a celebration of his 89th birthday in 2017, two native sons of working-class Boston who were steeped in its troubled history but came to represent a pivotal moment that began to change its trajectory.
King never occupied the official seat of mayoral power like James Michael Curley or Kevin White, both of whom are cast in bronze statues near Faneuil Hall. But also standing sentry nearby is noted rabble-rouser Sam Adams, with the simple epitaph under his statue reading, “He organized the Revolution.”
Finfer says King is more than deserving of joining them in statue there.
“The closest leader in Boston from 1950 to today who walked in Sam Adams’s steps,” he said, “was Mel King.”