Mel King, a Black community activist whose barrier-breaking campaign for mayor of Boston in 1983 helped ease racial tensions there that had been caused in part by court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools, died on March 28 at his home in Boston. He was 94.
His wife, Joyce (Kenion) King, confirmed the death.
In the decade before he ran for mayor, Mr. King had been a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he led the passage of laws creating nonprofit agencies that helped finance and renovate substantial amounts of affordable housing,
“He’s the father of affordable housing in Boston,” Lewis Finfer, a longtime community organizer in Boston who is director of Massachusetts Action for Justice, said by phone.
During his mayoral campaign, Mr. King drew support from what he called a “Rainbow Coalition” — a core that included Black, Hispanic, Asian and progressive white supporters. That term was soon adopted and expanded nationally by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Mr. King narrowly finished second to Raymond Flynn in a nonpartisan nine-candidate primary and was then soundly defeated by Mr. Flynn in the runoff general election.
Still, Mr. King, the first Black mayoral finalist in the city’s history, received a strong 20 percent of the ballots cast by white voters. (Boston has never elected a Black mayor, but for several months in 2021 Kim Janey served as the acting mayor.)
Mr. King and Mr. Flynn, both sons of longshoremen, ran an issues-oriented campaign that focused on working-class voters and reflected their long friendship, which began when they were teammates on a semipro basketball team.
The campaign was free of rancor about their opposing positions on enforced school busing between predominantly white and predominantly Black sections of the city — Mr. King was for it, Mr. Flynn was against it. That issue had divided the city, sometimes with violence, since 1974, when a federal court ordered the measure as a remedy to racial segregation.
“We set a civil tone, one of good will that changed the racial dynamic and toned it down,” Mr. Flynn said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t what people expected, but they were able to say if these two guys can do this for the city, we can do it as well.”
Pat Walker, the field director of Mr. King’s campaign, said in an interview that “both campaigns kept the violence and ugliness from breaking out.”
Mr. King himself told The Boston Globe a decade after his mayoral run: “What I believe people want more than anything else is a sense of a vision that’s inclusive and respectful and appreciative of who they are. What the Rainbow Coalition did was to put that right up front, because everybody could be a member.”
Melvin Herbert King was born on Oct. 20, 1928, in Boston, one of 11 children. His father, Watts Richard King, who was from Barbados, was a union secretary in addition to working on the docks. His mother, Ursula (Earle) King, was from Guyana.
Mr. King attended Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., a historically Black school, where he was captain of the football team. He had to adapt to the realities of living, even temporarily, in the Jim Crow South.
“I stopped going to the theater where Black people had to sit upstairs and started patronizing the Black theater instead,” he wrote in his 1981 book, “Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development.” “I rode in the back of the bus once and it felt so crummy that from then on I hitchhiked.”
He graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a year later received a master’s in education from Boston Teachers College (later Boston State College). He taught at two local high schools before becoming a social worker, first as director of boys’ activities at the Lincoln House settlement house and later as director of youth opportunities for United South End Settlements, a nonprofit social services agency that serves mostly low-income families and that had absorbed Lincoln House.
When he was fired in 1967 over a policy dispute with the agency, local residents protested, saying that he had been helping them overcome poverty. An editorial in The Globe called him a “deeply respected leader” of the community.
His profile in the city grew.
In 1968, Mr. King led a successful demonstration by more than 1,000 people against a city plan to build a parking garage on the site of housing that had been demolished as part of an urban renewal project on the city’s South End; in 1988, a development of 269 mixed-income apartments opened at the site under the name Tent City, a nod to the tents that protesters had earlier pitched and occupied on the property.
In 1989, Mr. King, who by then was executive director of the New Urban League, joined with other members of that group to disrupt an awards luncheon of the United Fund, a major local philanthropy, which had recently reduced its financial allocation to the league. Mr. King scooped half-eaten rolls and pieces of coconut pie into a laundry bag marked “Our Unfair Share — Black Crumbs,” held it over his head and dumped it on the head table.
“We’ve been getting crumbs,” he said at the time. “We’re no longer going to accept crumbs.”
In 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Boston, Mr. King led a march to express outrage over the shooting of a Black high school football player during a game. The player’s wounds left him a quadriplegic. Three white teenagers were charged.
“This walk,” he said during the event, “is to indicate that the pope should not come here without helping his flock to overcome their racism and to get the leaders of this city involved in that kind of dialogue that will put an end to the racism in this city.”
During his mayoral campaign, Mr. King took controversial positions. He told a mostly Jewish audience that he would welcome Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to Boston if he came peacefully. Given the choice between President Ronald Reagan and the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, he told a radio station, he would take Castro, because he had done more for the poor.
Mr. King’s other work included teaching in the urban studies and planning department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1970 to 1996. There, he started a Community Fellows Program for leaders nationwide.
In 1997, he created the South End Technology Center at Tent City, which offers community residents free or low-cost training in computer technology. He was its volunteer director.
In addition to his wife, Mr. King’s survivors include his daughters, Pamela, Judith and Nancy King; his sons, Melvin Jr., Michael and Jomo; and his sister, Olga King.
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