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How Mel King convinced me to stay in Boston

In a lifetime of activism, King saw his beloved city not only as it was, but as it could be for all Bostonians.

Mel King photographed in 1988, when he was teaching urban studies at MIT.Yunghi Kim/Globe Staff

Barely a year after moving to Boston, I was planning my exit strategy. I might have been gone already but I didn’t want to suffer the inevitable deluge of “I-told-you-sos” from friends who’d strongly advised against making the move in the first place.

For a young Black professional, Boston was fiercely parochial and inhospitable. Black co-workers warned me about which neighborhoods to avoid, communities whose racist histories I already knew from J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground” and “Liberty’s Chosen Home: The Politics of Violence in Boston,” by Alan Lupo, a beloved Globe columnist. Both books covered the city’s bitter school desegregation era.


With its entrenched tribalism, Boston could never be a place to call home. Then I met Mel King.

Long before I spoke with King, the longtime civil rights activist who died Tuesday at 94, I’d heard about him. A former state representative, he was the first Black person in Boston history to compete in a mayoral general election. The outcome wasn’t close — he lost to Ray Flynn, a vocal opponent of school busing, by 30 points. But in more important ways, King was undefeated. In the city of his birth, he still had too much work to do.

After an event in Roxbury, I walked up to King and introduced myself as a Globe reporter, though I wasn’t working that day. He was formidable. I was intimidated. He towered over me by nearly a foot. Plus he looked to be close to the age of my parents so I knew I needed to act right. His first words quickly put me at ease: “Well, hello. Welcome to Boston.”

We chatted for a bit before the conversation turned to how I was getting along here. I didn’t want to insult his city, but neither did I want to lie. I wish I could remember his exact words, but I recall their essence. Boston, King said, was starved for young Black people’s drive and ingenuity to build it up. It needed those who could see the city not only as it was, but for what it could be and offer to all who lived here.


A younger me, circa 1992-93, when I worked in Living Arts at the Globe.Renée Graham

King didn’t come across as someone simply cheerleading for his hometown. No doubt he’d witnessed many of Boston’s ugliest moments. With his talents, it seemed clear he could have chosen to live anywhere. He could have run for mayor — and perhaps won — in a place less mired in its white provincial ways. But King didn’t just want to see change; he wanted to be one of its architects.

Sadly, King never got to see a Black person elected Boston mayor. In fact, it would be nearly 35 years before another Black mayoral candidate made it to a general election — Tito Jackson, a former city councilor who ran in 2017 but lost just as decisively to incumbent Marty Walsh as King had lost to Flynn.

In 2021, three Black candidates — Kim Janey, who was appointed mayor after Walsh left to join President Biden’s administration; John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief; and Andrea Campbell, a former city councilor (now attorney general) were among five Democratic candidates competing in the mayoral primary. None made it to the general election.

If that aspect of King’s political dream remains unfulfilled, he did witness Michelle Wu become Boston’s first woman and person of color elected mayor. King’s “impact and legacy stretch across the boundaries of neighborhoods, race, class, and status,” the mayor said in a statement after his death. “His transformative ideas have shaped generations of organizers and leaders who are driving us closer toward his vision today.”


That vision, which sustained King throughout his exemplary life, is probably what he wanted me to see all those years ago. It’s not always been easy. At best, change in Boston is glacial. As housing costs squeeze renters and would-be homeowners, the Black population is shrinking. Too many here prefer to bury this city’s past and downplay present-day intolerance rather than confront and slay those demons once and for all.

But after King spoke to me, I slowly stopped counting the days until I could leave Boston. If this graceful, deeply thoughtful man could keep the faith and make Boston his lifelong home, at least I could try. Whenever I hear someone, especially a Black person, criticize Boston, I certainly get it. It can be a tough city to love, or even like. But I wish they’d had a chance to spend even a few minutes as I did talking with King about his Boston.

At the end of our conversation King said to me, “I hope you stay a while.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the event or the city. But 35 years later, I’m still here.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.