King was idealist with an eye for political pragmatism

Boston activist leaves a legacy of tireless work for a fairer world

MEL KING’S name surfaced in Marty Walsh’s kitchen very early on a sunny Wednesday morning, a day after a bruising preliminary election squabble for mayor of Boston.

Walsh was one of two victors the night before, having vanquished, among others, Charlotte Golar Richie, who some in Boston’s Black community were hoping would become the city’s first Black and female mayor.

Richie was my favored candidate but failed narrowly, and Walsh now stood across the room making instant coffee while pondering how to succeed in the final election against then-City Councilor John Connolly of West Roxbury, who many believed represented a new politics of multi-racial power sharing. When Walsh wondered aloud about ways to win the Black community’s vote in the final election, King’s name came up as an endorsement prize. Within hours Walsh was courting King, who later in the race supported him, helping to position the Dorchester state rep for victory in November.

Despite the lore about King as a legendary leftist who created the Rainbow Coalition, he was also a clear-eyed and knowing practitioner of Boston politics, who understood well its underbelly, the necessity of dealmaking, and the reasons why city politics were filled with compromise and myriad pragmatic considerations.

In fact, Mel King was a grand visionary, always focused on how we might negotiate the competing desires of a politically tribal city often at war with itself.  He was a master at understanding how we often behave recklessly in the public square and how we might address racial differences in order to create the new Boston we all quietly wanted.

When King passed away this week at 94, we lost a person who had already gained legendary status, a sage of the South End who managed to blend during his political career a message of change and common ground, courage and conviction, public reasonableness and an ability to reach the hearts of Bostonians who seem so radically different from him.

We cannot ignore the pivotal role King played in healing the city as he ran in 1983 for mayor against Ray Flynn, who would beat him. During that race King galvanized Boston’s Black community like never before. He infused a suffering community with audacious hope almost single handedly.

Word of his passing immediately prompted Flynn at his home in South Boston to call King a “bridge” who united a racially fractured city in the aftermath of the busing crisis. Calling him a civic pugilist, Flynn said King “fought” for Boston’s future.

I don’t remember when I first met Mel King exactly decades ago. It may have been during one of the many community meetings I attended as a young activist somewhere in Grove Hall or Dudley Square, or in the living room of a tenant at a housing project in Mattapan.

But at the time, King was organizing everywhere as his vocation and I thought it might be profitable to learn of his politics, so I followed him. King would soon adopt me as an apprentice and eventually invited me to participate in the renowned Community Fellows Program at MIT that he led for two decades. I participated in the last cohort of fellows who travelled from across the globe for a year of intense study under his guidance.

Known for his taciturn but easy going style, King could be blunt, especially about the civic principles he had developed over his lifetime. When I asked him if I should take a campaign management job Mayor Thomas Menino offered to maintain an appointed Boston School Committee, King said, “hell no.” At his Sunday morning brunches at his home on Yarmouth Street he would offer guests salmon cakes with a serving of his acerbic opinions. It was all good.

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As much as King loved his wife Joyce, his love for his community was similarly palpable, as he always stood up on issues large and small. He championed what we call in the Black community “self-determination” and true grit.

We loved King and he loved us back, and the city will not be the same without his special tenderness and wisdom. His invisible hand will remain at work shaping how we continue to heal and forge ourselves into his hopes for all of us.

I last saw King months ago in his home. He seemed shrunken and far diminished from the physical prowess he exuded during the height of his powers. We held hands gently. Took a few photos. And we smiled at each other as I let myself from his home and into the darkened street.

Kevin Peterson is the founder of The New Democracy Coalition and affiliate faculty at Boston University’s Center for Anti-Racist Research.