The city of Boston is grieving the loss of Melvin Herbert King, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Mel King was a nationally known civil rights icon, lawmaker and the first Black mayoral candidate to advance to a general election in Boston. King is being remembered now for his work as a longtime community organizer and his lasting effect on the city and state politics by the many who knew him, including GBH News’ senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin, who joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to share his memories. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: This is a really huge, devastating loss of someone who lived a remarkable life. Phillip, tell us what Mel King represented in the context of Boston history.
Phillip Martin: Well, I think everything. I mean, he defined it over a lifetime. I mean, 94 years: activist, community organizer, change-maker. When a lot of people think about Boston, they think about two things, historically speaking. They think about the city that's defined by its revolutionary provenance, you know, the 18th century. And they also think about it as a city defined by the busing of the 1970s. But King sort of represented this arc of 20th- and 21st-century history — its racial and class intolerance for sure, but also the fight against racism. He represents the city's current multiracial political hierarchy, as opposed to what we've seen in the past.
Jeremy Siegel: You used that phrase “the arc of history,” referencing what King represented as a community activist and as a lawmaker. Tell us a little bit more about the transformation that he was part of in the city of Boston.
Martin: Absolutely. People drive every day down Dartmouth Street and they see these apartments called the Tent City Apartments. And I'm not sure how many people think about how that got there, because you're looking at an apartment complex that's a mixed-income housing complex in the heart of Boston, Copley Square, where you actually have low-income people living there.
This was the result of a protest that began in the late ’60s against the Boston Redevelopment Authority, led by Mel King. The intention of the city, the BRA at the time — the Boston Redevelopment Authority — was to build this garage. And King led this protest culminating in this dedicated, quality living community, eponymously called Tent City Apartments. That was Mel King!
Alston: That was one of the first things I learned when I was learning about Mel King upon moving here.
Martin: That's right. This originated from this popular protest against gentrification. You have to think about Mel King, in answer to your question, his 10 years as a state representative elected in 1973, in the midst of extraordinary racial turmoil. And we also have to think about Mel King — at that time, you had this deep reactionary political leadership in the '70s, represented by people like Louise Day Hicks, a city councilor and former congressperson. And King formed this Rainbow Coalition, a campaign for mayor in 1983 that was sort of an adjacent to what was happening on the national level with Jesse Jackson. And here is an interview with Mel King in 1983. This interview was conducted by reporter Gail Harris, and it's King explaining why he was running for mayor. And this explains it all.
Mel King: I can remember a time when I went to do an errand and came back with a man following. And it was cold. And he came to the door and I ran in and my father saw him. And the man said that he was hungry and cold, came in and was fed, warmed and given some food on his way. And I'll never forget that. My father said, “No matter what you have, a little, you always have enough to share.” It's kind of stuck with me all of my life.
"In many ways, he's leaving a lot behind. But he's also pushing a lot of things forward."-GBH News senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin
Martin: So you have this powerful, very tall, soft-spoken man who was just absolutely compassionate. And as another example, final example of this: When I was working with Oxfam America, and at this time it was located in the Bay Village, Mel King worked with us on outreach programs, not just to the city, but to Haiti, Nicaragua and Southern Africa in the 1980s.
Alston: So many milestones throughout his life there, Phillip. And, you know, another thing that I would hear about Mel King was was how much community organizing was part of just who he was as a person, his everyday life. He was in the streets during protests. He was in the State House legislating, but he was also welcoming people into his own house to organize and to talk about the issues of the day. So tell us a little bit about those famous Sunday brunches he would have in the South End.
Martin: Oh, yeah. Besides the good food, I think everyone listening who's been to Mel King's house knows exactly what I'm talking about. You had food, you had laughs, but you also had serious discussion. People would strategize about, for example, in the '80s, about Boston's anti-apartheid movement to improve the position of Black and brown workers in the city.
He would have people at the house from from organizations like the Chinese Progressive Association. He also represented the community at MIT. He ran this Community Fellows program. He was this true coalition builder, coalitions that stretched across racial lines. Many activists can say they are the children, if you will, of Mel King. As I said, he was close to Jesse Jackson, whose own Rainbow Coalition actually echoed Mel King's on a national level in terms of successful coalition-building. That's what I can say about him.
Siegel: And real quickly, before we let you go, Phillip, what legacy does Mel King leave behind?
Martin: In many ways, he's leaving a lot behind. But he's also pushing a lot of things forward, even his 1983 book. It has been basically re-formed to reflect the times. And that was at the insistence of young activists in this area. He also left behind these legacy at the at the South End Settlements — the South End Technology Center, for example, which he started in 1997. But most importantly, his six children and his wife, Joyce, are a beautiful family. They welcomed you into their home. And we will miss you, Mel King.