Mel King’s life, and life lessons for planners
By Chris Tilly
Mel King, the preeminent Boston Black community leader of his generation, passed away in late March 2023 at the age of 94. Mel was an organizer, an elected official, an educator, and a visionary. He was also my friend for decades, and I want to share some of the story of his life because I think it provides some lessons and even a bit of inspiration.
Mel grew up in the New York Streets neighborhood of Boston’s South End, a vibrant multi-ethnic working-class community with immigrants from a dozen countries, from West Indians like Mel’s father (born in Trinidad) and mother (born in Guyana) to Puerto Rican, Lebanese, and Chinese. Mel saw his neighborhood razed by the mid-20th century federal urban renewal program that condemned communities like his as “blighted”, and that experience shaped the rest of life. After attending college at Claflin, a HBCU in South Carolina, he came back to the South End, married his childhood sweetheart Joyce, with whom he spent the rest of his life, and started an eventually quite large (six children) family.
Mel worked teaching high school math, then doing youth outreach and community organizing in the South End, becoming director of Boston’s New Urban League in 1967. He was active in civil rights and community campaigns in Boston’s then relatively small Black community in the 1960s and 1970s, a trajectory he later documented in his compelling mid-life memoir Chain of Change (1981). He captured public attention as a leader in the 1968 Tent City struggle, so-called because activists camped out for three days on a South End site where run-down affordable housing had been demolished for a parking lot, pressing demands for the construction of new affordable housing instead. The parcel remained a parking lot for decades, but the community never gave up, and in 1988 the Tent City affordable housing project opened on the site and continues to offer low-income housing today.
In 1971, Mel joined the Massachusetts Institute of Techology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he established the Community Fellows Program. Community Fellows were groups of community activists from communities of color around the country who received a one-year fellowship to take time off from activism and spend a year at MIT, taking classes, reflecting, and participating in a year-long seminar led by Mel. Mel directed Community Fellows for 25 years, helping hundreds of activists strengthen their analytical and leadership skills, network and learn from each other, and simply get a respite from the high-stress grind of daily activism.
Mel was elected State Representative in 1973, serving until 1982. He was a creative legislator. He spearheaded the creation of a set of Massachusetts state institutions that provide funding and technical assistance for community development organizations, as a result of which Massachusetts to this day has an exceptionally high density of such organizations. He built alliances between rural farmers and urban communities to support agriculture, including urban agriculture and community gardens. He led legislation to divest Massachusetts state funds from corporations that did business in South Africa when the South African movement against apartheid and for democracy and equal rights called for a global boycott. He also supported what was then called gay (now LGBTQ+) rights from the early 1970s, staking out a position that at the time was held by only a small minority even among progressives.
In 1974, a judge mandated busing to desegregated Boston’s hyper-segregated and desperately unequal schools. Many white communities, above all largely Irish-American South Boston and largely Italian-American East Boston, organized to resist integration, extending to physical attacks on school buses and Black and Latinx students. Residents of white communities also physically attacked Black and Latinx families who tried to move into all-white areas, who tried to enjoy Carson Beach (on the waterfront between South Boston and what was the predominantly Black Columbia Point public housing project at that time), or who simply set foot in the “wrong” neighborhood. Boston’s Black community and progressives from all communities counter-organized to confront racism, and Mel emerged as a leader in the anti-racist movement.
Mel’s greatest impact on Boston’s political and social fabric came with his run for Mayor in 1983. He had run previously in 1979 without getting much traction, but in 1983 four-term incumbent Kevin White left office, creating a more open race, and Mel set about building a broader coalition. The coalition united Black, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ+ communities, along with white liberals and progressives. Borrowing from the late Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, Mel dubbed it the Rainbow Coalition. Powered by the Rainbow Coalition, Mel placed a close second in a field of five in the primary; all the others were white men. Mel’s opponent in the final election, State Representative Ray Flynn, was a South Boston native who had led resistance to integration (though he was not visibly involved in the violence). His message, like Mel’s, centered economic justice, but unlike Mel’s, was conspicuously silent on racial justice. Flynn triumphed in a hard-won campaign, but Mel, ever the community organizer, continued to build the Rainbow Coalition, and the combination of Mel’s strong showing and the still-active coalition compelled Flynn to take on the mantle of racial healer—among many other things, throwing city government’s support behind building affordable housing on the Tent City site.
Mel went on to play an active role in the 1984 and 1988 campaigns of Black Chicago civil rights activist Jesse Jackson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though Jackson never came close to winning the nomination, he adopted the Rainbow Coalition label and model and built national alliances that embraced labor unions, family farm organizations, Native American communities, and many others, mobilizing new voters and supporting grassroots organizing across the country. Mel helped establish the Rainbow Party as a third party in Massachusetts that later affiliated with the Green Party. He remained active on issues affecting Boston’s Black community as well as the South End and surrounding areas—notably negotiating with Northeastern University about its expansion into surrounding communities. He also led Black activist Chuck Turner’s successful campaign for Boston City Council in 1999.
I first laid eyes on Mel at a rally against racism on the Boston Common in 1974. There he was on the stage, a towering Black man—Mel stood well over six feet and was powerfully built—shouting “Freedom now!” in call and response with the crowd. I was electrified.
I didn’t actually meet Mel until several years later. Mel and his wife Joyce hosted a legendary weekly Sunday brunch open to all—I’m not sure when it began, but it was going strong in the 1970s and continued well into the 2010s. Mel cooked fish, Joyce, later joined by daughter Pamela, made a big green salad, beans, and rice, and attendees would bring potluck items. Sometimes there was a speaker talking about an issue, a part of the world, a campaign, other times it was just a chance to converse with a diverse group. I went to the Kings’ brunch as a very young activist and apprehensively asked him if he would endorse our labor union organizing campaign at a Boston hospital. Mel gently let me know that he didn’t make a practice of endorsing campaigns he wasn’t involved in, but that he would always share information. “Did you bring any written materials?” he asked. I hadn’t, but I never made that mistake again.
Several years later, after I got together with my wife Marie Kennedy (who had met Mel at the 1968 Tent City protests and had stayed in touch with him since then), we threw ourselves into Mel’s 1983 mayoral campaign, at the same time I started the PhD program in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and began interacting with Mel in that setting. We went to the brunch many times over the decades. Interestingly, I came to feel closer with Mel and Joyce after we moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 2008. Mel was no longer besieged by people trying to get his attention and approval like the young Chris Tilly thirty years earlier, the weekly brunch was no longer thronged, so when we visited Boston (which we did frequently since our daughter and grandsons were there) there were more opportunities to interact informally. We last saw Mel on a visit last year.
Mel taught me a number of valuable lessons. One was the value of a catchy line. Mel had a talent for coining or borrowing phrases that resonated. In addition to the Rainbow Coalition, he came up with the slogan “We may have come here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now” for his 1983 campaign. In his later years, one of his favorite sayings was, “The power of love is stronger than the love of power.” Mel rejected the homogenization implied by the “melting pot” ideal for American society, advocating instead for a “tossed salad” model that preserves and values diversity. Mel also had a dry wit. When he walked on stage at the Sheraton ballroom for the “victory party” the night he lost the mayoral election, there was what felt like ten minutes of a standing ovation and thousands of supporters chanting “Mel King!” When he finally got us to simmer down, he smiled and said quietly, “I think you folks may not have heard the news.”
Mel also taught me that respecting people means challenging them to be their best selves, not telling them what they want to hear—but also supporting them in that process. As state rep, when constituents called him up to ask him to call a government office on their behalf, he made a point of urging them to try calling the office themselves first—not because he didn’t want to be bothered, but because he wanted to help community members build their own sense of empowerment and efficacy. When speaking to all-white groups, including Boston’s powerful building trades unions, on the campaign trail, Mel never soft-peddled racial issues. He called out racism and argued that it was in working class white folks’ long term interest to join communities of color in undoing that racism. He often got a cool reception, but his campaigns were as much about planting seeds for long-term change as about winning elections. To the extent that I’m an effective teacher today, it’s partly because of what I learned from Mel.
Finally, Mel reminded many of us overly “serious” activists in Boston, and others around the country and around the world, that making positive social change is grounded in people-to-people connections that the most durable connections are built by conversation, preferably accompanied by good food, and therefore that structured meetings need to be accompanied by unstructured brunches. He spoke this truth, but he also lived it, as demonstrated by over forty years of cooking fish weekly for an indeterminate number of guests in the basement that he and Joyce had converted into a kitchen-dining room-living room space. The thousands of us in the Sheraton ballroom that November night in 1983 chanted his name for ten minutes because his campaign and the Rainbow Coalition had built on, and in turn built, so many of those human connections. It was an outpouring of love.
Boston has changed a lot since the bad old days of 1974. It became a majority people of color city in the 2000s. Large-scale migration from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Central America, and later Brazil, shifted racial dynamics away from a Black-white binary and blurred the boundaries of who was Black and who was Latinx. Today South Boston is inhabited by people of all races and ethnicities, and East Boston is primarily Latinx—though, alas, the schools have resegregated (but that is another story). Mel was fortunate to live long enough to see Michelle Wu, an Asian-American woman committed to a broad social justice agenda, elected mayor in 2021—the first woman and the first BIPOC person to occupy the position in the city’s history. He did more than any other person to make that moment possible.
Rest in power, Mel King.
Chris Tilly is Professor and Chair of the Urban Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Prior to doing a PhD in Economics and Urban Studies and Planning, he did community and labor organizing for eight years.