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Mel King changed what power looks like in Boston

Mayoral candidates Ray Flynn and Mel King crossed paths on their separate campaign itineraries in East Boston in 1983.George Rizer/Globe Staff

One way to measure the lasting impact of the great Mel King is to think about his progeny.

I don’t mean his immediate relatives. I’m referring to those who have followed in his giant steps.

I’m thinking of Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu. Also, Tito Jackson and Andrea Campbell. Lydia Edwards belongs on that list as well.

That’s barely a start.

King, who died this week at 94, is rightly celebrated as the first Black candidate to make it to the final of a mayoral election, his epic race against Ray Flynn in 1983.

That’s accurate, but like any thumbnail it’s in an incomplete picture of his legacy.


King challenged and permanently changed this city’s idea of what leadership could look like. And his impact was lasting.

He was a state representative from the South End when he entered the crowded race to succeed Kevin H. White.

White had ruled as a classic downtown powerbroker. But after 16 years of his leadership, the city was hungry for a different approach.

And voters were guaranteed something different when King and Ray Flynn faced off, two progressives who both pledged to be a sharp departure from the status quo.

Their race came as the city was finally beginning to weary of the long-running war over school desegregation. King and Flynn had sharply disagreed over busing; King was a supporter while Flynn, of South Boston, had been an opponent.

But they found common ground in the belief that Boston had to find a way past division. That election reset more than the city’s politics.

I’m not suggesting that King and Flynn didn’t have sharp differences, because they did. But their mutual respect for one another was obvious, even years later. The tenor of their contest showed that Bostonians didn’t have to live at each other’s throats.


King would make another couple of unsuccessful runs for office, including a bid for Congress in 1986, and he toyed with running for mayor in 1993, when Flynn stepped down, before deciding against it.

But by then, he had really stepped into a larger role as the eminence grise of the city’s progressives, and the spiritual head of the Black community.

A lot of that work was done quietly. For example, when the Legislative Black Caucus could barely sit in the same room in the early 1990s — after Dianne Wilkerson unseated Shirley Owens-Hicks’s brother Bill — King came in, sat everyone down, and brokered peace.

To the very end, he was a treasured adviser, especially on the delicate art of putting together coalitions to fight for change.

When the Globe was launching a series on race in Boston in 2017, I asked Mel to join a group of Black activists coming in for an off-the-record conversation to help us think through the issues that we needed to address.

He was pushing 90 then, and, honestly, coming to the Globe was more of an effort for him than I realized it would be. But he didn’t hesitate to do it. If there was a conversation that held the possibility of doing good for the city, he wanted to be a part of it — always with his wife, Joyce, at his side.

When people like King die, words like “legacy” get tossed around casually. But his imprint is all around us.


In his beloved South End — a place utterly transformed since his days in office, let alone his boyhood — you see it at Tent City, at Villa Victoria, at the Cathedral housing development. All are monuments to his insistence that the South End belonged to poor people, too.

You see his legacy in the fight for rent control, which is just the latest iteration of the long battle to preserve a place for those without wealth.

And Mel King’s legacy lives in the faces of those who hold power — in Congress, at the State House, in Michelle Wu’s presence in the mayor’s office.

King always insisted that his crusade was never about him. His relentless fight to bring others along never wavered.

In fact, it was Boston he brought along.

No wonder, then, that so many of us feel poorer at the thought of his absence.

Rest in power, Mel.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @Adrian_Walker.