There are some things Mary Franklin wants you to know about her husband, Melvin.
He was a minister, and a doting father who never complained, even when he arrived home to find an extra dog to feed, or somebody else’s child in need of shelter. He was a recording artist who appeared on “Soul Train,” the kind of guy who could pull off shiny pink pants in his day. He was a man who made an honest living, catching the bus from his job as a skycap to the house he was proud to own on Woodrow Avenue.
She wants you to know these things so that you don’t think of him as just another black man shot to death on a Dorchester street. Because unless people think of Melvin Bernard Franklin as a real person — a person with talents and quirks and dreams and loves just like anybody else — she’s convinced we’ll never find the person who killed him.
It is 17 years this week since Mary heard the sirens a block and a half from her house. She was vaguely curious, but busy with her two young kids, and hoping Melvin would be home soon. Seventeen years since she got the call to tell her he’d been shot in the chest.
The walls in her Roslindale apartment are covered with pictures marking the stations of her procession from joy to blinding pain. Here is Melvin as a teenaged member of The Energetics, dressed in a wide-lapeled turquoise tux and a baby blue frilled shirt. Here is another, with Melvin hanging off a wire fence in salmon colored lame pants and an impossibly tight shirt: “Back then, those things were, ‘Ooh!’ ” Mary laughs. Here are pictures of the breathtakingly handsome couple in a horse and buggy on their wedding day, and of babies cradled in their father’s arms.
A chain of insignificant decisions conspired to shatter this idyll. Melvin caught the bus that day, instead of taking his car. He happened to be walking down Woodrow at the precise moment a killer was determined to rob somebody. For a long time, Mary believed Melvin’s death completely random. Then last year, she says, a detective told her that Melvin didn’t just wander into a killer’s view. He interrupted a robbery already in progress. When the first victim escaped, Melvin became the target.
“That’s the ultimate,” Mary says. “There is somebody out there that should be dead, but Melvin took his place 17 years ago.”
Boston police won’t confirm this, citing the ongoing investigation. But for Mary, the belief that Melvin in death saved a life has become an anchor. She has long pressed his case, talking about him to any audience or politician who would listen. She has protested laws she sees as too soft on young criminals. She has gone to memorials and murder scenes to comfort others like her.
But this new insight into Melvin’s murder convinced Mary she had to do more. She also had to help people, like he did. Most of her apartment and her meager means are now given over to the operation called Melvin’s Mission. Three times a week, she hosts women who have lost children, husbands, friends, and leads them through art projects and therapy sessions.
“These are women who have been in bed for years,” she says. “They get up three days a week and they come here. We have to embrace what we’ve gone through, because we can’t change it.”
That is easier on some days than others. On Monday night, Mary and her friends will gather at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Woodrow. They will retrace Melvin’s last steps, and release balloons from the spot where he fell. And this year, like every year, Mary will demand that unsolved murders in all corners of the city be taken more seriously. And of the person who killed Melvin, or saw it happen, or is alive today because he is dead, she will ask the same question she always does.
“Don’t they have a heart, after 17 years?”