Mel King stands in the kitchen with Joyce, his wife of 62 years, wearing an orange T-shirt over his signature dungarees. The front of the shirt proclaims, “Boycott Jail.” The back: “End prison slavery.”
It’s still early and others have yet to arrive for Sunday brunch, a tradition at their Yarmouth Street home in the South End for almost as long as they’ve been married. People begin to trickle in just before noon, announcing their arrival at the back door with little more than a casual hello.
People come to nourish their bodies as well as their souls, feasting on the free-flowing ideas that permeate the room between bites of fruit cocktail, swordfish ceviche, and curry rice. Nothing is off limits: Adoption. Foster care. Bees and honey. Neoconservatism. The Nation of Islam. Media sensationalism.
At 84, King is an activist who has stood the test of time in a city where that doesn’t always happen.
The former state representative is the first, and only, person of color to make it to the final election for mayor of Boston. Three decades later, with the race for mayor wide open for the first time in a generation, six of the 12 candidates vying for the top spot are people of color, including the one, and only, woman in the race.
But for King, what’s more important than the composition of the field is how candidates respond to a community demanding affordable housing, access to high-quality schools, and an end to the “lock-’em-up” prison culture.
King said it’s “interesting” that most candidates waited until Thomas M. Menino revealed he wouldn’t seek reelection to announce they would run. “If folks had that burning desire to change things, why wouldn’t they try to change them while he was in office?” King wondered. “If you were going to do it, do it.”
Still, King doesn’t have much interest in waxing nostalgic about what he’s done — such things as pushing for the state to plant fruit trees in public spaces or initiating the nation’s first statewide divestment from banks and companies that did business with South Africa during the apartheid era. These, he says, are “old stories.”
“What’s really important is what we need to do today,” King said.
Over the years, King has amassed a cadre of comrades that he taps to tackle whatever issue is at hand.
“I get an e-mail from him at least once a week, something I should read, a cause that needs to be understood, responded to, and supported,” said Hubie Jones, a former dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work and noted activist from King’s generation.
Jones described himself as “a Young Turk new to Boston” when he first met King 50 years ago. He wanted to launch a one-day work stoppage — it came to be known as STOP — protesting all forms of racial discrimination, and someone suggested talking to King in June 1963. “If King hadn’t supported me,” Jones said, “I would have been run out of this town.”
While King’s gait may not be what it once was, he keeps pushing, playing tennis several times a week. “That,” Jones said, “gives you a sense of his determination.”
Right now, King’s attention is focused on building community.
“We need to get people organized around their blocks, their street, knowing all the children, knowing each other, talking to each other,” he said. This, then, is the central question in organizing a community to realize its collective power: “Are we really willing to look out for our neighbors block by block?”
Talk to anyone of his generation, King said, or a little younger — say, people in their 60s — and listen to stories about how all the adults in the neighborhood watched over all the children.
One lesson consistently instilled back then by the neighborhood’s parents, be they at home, at church, or at school: Being average was not good enough. You had to be the best. As a track coach once told King and his teammates: Never end a race in a photo finish with a white runner. Win by five yards so there is no question.
“We grew up knowing that we had to be best,” he said.
King, whose soft voice belies his 6-foot-3-inch frame, has been an activist, politician, and poet for most of his life.
He is one of 11 children, two of whom died in infancy. His parents emigrated from Barbados and Guyana, and the family spent much of King’s childhood in a long-gone South End neighborhood known as the New York Streets, a diverse, densely packed area of shops and stores, with apartments above. Today, its only visible remnant is Albany Street.
King has remained in the South End, leaving only for Claflin College in South Carolina and short stints abroad. He met his wife in the South End when he was 15, she 13. They went to the same church and worked together as camp counselors.
They married in 1951 and raised their three boys and three girls inside a quintessential brick row house.
The dark wood walls are covered with photographs and renderings of civil rights leaders, maps depicting Africa’s true size (correcting a long-accepted distortion), and children’s drawings. Like King, the house is both vintage and modern, with a solar-powered heating system and cast-iron stove. King’s MacBook Pro sits amid vinyl records.
Growing up under the weight of their father’s legacy has not always been easy for King’s six children, said his daughter Pamela. To them, he was just dad. To the public, King is a noted civil rights leader whose children naturally should wear the mantle of activism.
Pamela King said she tends to “get pulled into” her father’s causes, serving, for example, first as a volunteer and now as a staff member at the South End Technology Center, which he founded about 16 years ago.
“At some point, he’s going to be gone,” she said. “Where does this place go after? Someone said, ‘Well, why don’t you be the director?’ That’s not my passion, but I won’t let it fail, either.”
The seeds of activism planted by King’s parents blossomed in the Jim Crow South, forcing King to think about how he would make a difference in the world.
After King returned from studying in the South, he earned a master’s degree from the old Boston Teachers College. He taught for a while before deciding “to work out on the corners with the youth.” He calls it the best move he ever made.
Young people, he said, needed role models, counseling, and help securing jobs. In April 1968, he helped families secure housing by leading a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s local site office. They were protesting urban renewal.
That protest was sparked by the city’s decision to raze brick row houses and, in the name of development, replace them with a parking lot.
Two days after the sit-in, King and several thousand others began the now-famous Tent City demonstration in a parking lot bordered by Dartmouth and Yarmouth streets and Columbus Avenue. “This site was the fact and the symbol of all we had been fighting against for so long,” King wrote in his book, “Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development.”
Today, Tent City is a large mixed-income apartment building across from the Back Bay T Station.
After heading the forerunner to the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty, King leapt into politics. In 1972, he was elected to the state Legislature, where he served for a decade, crusading for racial harmony, social justice, and tenant, gay, and women’s rights.
King’s 1983 mayoral bid galvanized a coalition of blacks and liberals. He garnered enough votes in the primary election to face off against Ray Flynn, but lost in the general election to Flynn, who won 65 percent of the vote. His candidacy brought to the polls thousands of voters who had long been estranged from politics and led to the creation of the Rainbow Coalition, a diverse political organization known for its social justice platform.
Malia Lazu, cofounder of the Future Boston Alliance, first met King as an Emerson College sophomore in 1996.
“The first thing that Mel taught me that was really important was: Stick with your people,” said Lazu. “African-American leaders get really comfortable being the only person of color in a room full of power, and that’s something Mel is never going to do, even if he has to go outside and grab some people.”
Around his dining room table at brunch, everyone has a voice.
One Sunday in January, the conversation turned to why President Obama didn’t specifically mention the African-American community during his inaugural address, despite mentioning gays, guns, the environment, and immigration.
“The African-American community is still suffering,” said King’s former State House staffer, Georgia McEaddy , mentioning disparities in unemployment rates.
It is then that King weighs in, silencing the room, relying on the power of his words, not the sound of his voice, to make his point. King barely speaks above a whisper.
“The issue of naming the black community is a legitimate one,” he says. “What’s the percentage of the vote that came out of the black community?”
If they had stayed home, he said, Obama “goes home.”