In 1983, as a young reporter covering my first Boston mayoral race, I was assigned to write a profile of Mel King, the first Black person to make it to a general election in this city. Here are my first three paragraphs about King, who died Tuesday at 94:
“The public debate over Melvin H. King as rebel or nonconformist leader began more than 15 years ago. It is still unsettled today as he seeks to become Boston’s first black mayor.
As a protester in the 1960s, King defied the city’s business and political establishment by dumping food scraps on the head table during an annual charity awards banquet to symbolize the “crumbs” he said black people were receiving. He staged sit-ins against development plans for the South End, which led to his arrest.
When the Pope visited Boston in 1979 after the shooting of a black football player in Charlestown, King led a march to draw attention to the climate of racial disharmony in the city — even though the mayor and the mother of the victim asked him not to.”
As a result, I wrote, “some still think of King, a former state representative, chiefly in the role of radical and activist.” King was not happy about this depiction. Today, I understand why. Instead of highlighting his leadership as a uniter who wanted to bring people together, I highlighted the stereotypical angry Black man — in other words, the divisive candidate who could never win citywide election in a city divided by racial strife. Of course, my profile wasn’t the difference on Election Day. Raymond L. Flynn won big, with 66 percent of the vote. But my contribution shows the role played by the white establishment media to protect the status quo. I didn’t see it that way then. But now I get it.
I believe in the power of protest, yet I presented King as a threat to the power structure. But King saw his mission as something very different. As Kay Gibbs, a friend of King’s and longtime political activist, put it, “Mel was a visionary who rejected the notion that power was a zero-sum game. He thought there was enough to go around for everybody.” King didn’t analyze the politics of a situation the way others did. For example, Gibbs said, “People were horrified he was going to march against the pope. But he didn’t see it in those terms. He saw it in terms of a moral obligation, the right thing to do.”
King, however, was running against an establishment that never saw power as something to share — only as something that could be lost. In 1983, the Boston establishment had no desire to lose power to a rabble-rousing Black man. Yet in the preliminary, King did something truly miraculous. He defied the expectation that two white candidates would end up running against each other in the general election. At the outset, David I. Finnegan, a former school board president and radio talk show host with strong ties to the business community, was seen as the front-runner. But Finnegan ended up in third place, finishing behind Flynn, a city councilor from South Boston who ran as a populist — and behind King, who brought together enough white, Black, and Latino voters through his “Rainbow Coalition” to make it to the final.
In the end, the business community didn’t get what it wanted. But Boston got what it was used to: a white mayor of Irish heritage. Still, King made history. On the night he lost, he called the moment “a turning point in the social, cultural, and political history of Boston.” To his credit, Flynn, once known for his opposition to desegregation, instead worked to bring Boston together. And, over the years, those two old political rivals became friends and allies. “He wasn’t a political guy who measured everything by polls. He believed what was in his heart. He fought for what was in his heart,” said Flynn.
Larry DiCara, a former city councilor who finished fourth in the 1983 mayoral preliminary race, still marvels at the coalition King was able to build. After all, this was a time, said DiCara, “when intelligent people looked me straight in the eye and said an Italian could never be elected mayor.” King, he said, “was the first person out of the foxhole, to cross the Rubicon” and offer the possibility of a different kind of mayor. A decade later, Tom Menino became Boston’s first Italian American mayor. In 2021, Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of color to win election to the mayor’s office. Kim Janey, who took over as acting mayor after Marty Walsh left office, was endorsed by King. But the first Black woman to make it to the mayor’s office did not make the final.
Boston has changed. But could a King-like candidate make it to a mayoral final today, let alone win? “Let’s just say that Mel was ahead of his time. Let’s say he was also of his time. Would he be possible now? I don’t know,” replied Gibbs.
Would the media write about such a candidate differently than we did 40 years ago? I don’t know, either, but I hope so.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.