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Keller @ Large: Mel King was a critical force in ushering in the new Boston

Keller @ Large: Mel King was a critical force in ushering in the new Boston
Keller @ Large: Mel King was a critical force in ushering in the new Boston 10:29

BOSTON - Thankfully, Mel King's passing was "quiet and peaceful," his wife Joyce told the Boston Globe.

But his public life was not.

In the fall of 1983, as a young stringer for People magazine, we were following Mr. King as he campaigned for mayor in East Boston. As the two of us passed by a local school, two young boys approached. They couldn't have been more than ten.

"You're Mel King, right?" said one. King nodded. And the kid unloaded a string of vile racial slurs capped by an exhortation to "get the (bleep) out of here."

King glanced at me but didn't flinch. This was nothing new for him. Being Black in Boston has always meant a high risk of exposure to racism. And as a high-profile activist during the city's darkest ages of segregation and bigotry, King became a lightning rod for insult and attack.

Which made his contribution to the city all the more remarkable. With the first Black (acting) mayor and several decades of progressive political leadership under its belt, it's easy to forget how crucial the 1983 mayoral race, King's presence as the first person of color to make the runoff, and his conduct both during and after the election were to ushering in the new Boston.

Melvin King Mayoral Race
Mel King celebrates at the Parker House in Boston on Oct. 11, 1983, after finding out he has made it into the final round of elections for Boston mayor. King ultimately lost to Ray Flynn. Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kevin White's defeat of segregationist School Committeewoman Louise Day Hicks in the 1967 mayoral race was billed as a shift away from the days of backwater governance. But the school busing debacle of the 1970s exposed the city's deep rot of economic, educational and racial inequality and neighborhoods pitted against each other.

By 1983, a mature generation of community activists-turned-elected-officials - including 55-year-old Mel King of the South End and 44-year-old Ray Flynn of South Boston - were reaching similar conclusions about the need for neighborhood investment and empowerment. Despite their wide ideological differences, King and Flynn understood their common ground, and showed respect for both one another and their fellow citizens by conducting a campaign that could have been as ugly and divisive as it gets with a relatively-high level of dignity and care.

King and Flynn also made a point of publicizing their post-election friendship. "It was the first sign of wounds beginning to heal," noted Flynn.

(Boston, MA - 3/21/17) Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, left, and former state Rep. Mel King embrace during the launch of of Boston Peace and Democracy Discussions in Roxbury, Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Staff photo by Angela Rowlings.
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, left, and former state Rep. Mel King embrace in Roxbury, Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Angela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

And when Mayor Flynn went on to desegregate public housing, grant eminent domain power to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and calm the city after the false arrest of a Black man for the Carol Stuart murder, he was setting the template for his increasingly progressive, inclusive successors - Menino, Walsh and now Wu. But he couldn't have done so without the groundwork and graciousness of Mel King.

There is much, much more to this man's story, and if you want to understand Boston, it's worth your time to learn more about him. His two books: "Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development" (1981) and "From Access to Power: Black Politics in Boston" (1986, a collection of essays he edited) are good sources.

But our last encounter says plenty. We were covering an MBTA board meeting and there in the front row awaiting the public comment period was King, the eternal activist, now in his 90s.

During a break, we approached, commented on how good he looked, and asked what his secret was.

King smiled. "Love," he said.

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