Civil rights icon Mel King, who died last month at the age of 94, was memorialized by Boston leaders Monday as a monumental visionary who transformed his hometown through his advocacy for racial equity and fairness.
Scores turned out for an afternoon ceremony on City Hall Plaza, where officials remembered King — a former state representative from the South End who in 1983 became the first Black candidate to reach a Boston mayoral general election — for breaking down barriers, helping unite a deeply segregated Boston, and an insistent activism rooted in compassion.
“He dreamed for the city and challenged us to fight for that dream, and to do so with the all encompassing power of love,” Mayor Michelle Wu said.
While eulogizing King, Wu recalled eating cups of diced fruit during a brunch at King’s home and said Boston would not be the city it is today “without Mel’s insistence, unrelenting love for Boston, and all that we could be.”
King, she said, taught generations of Boston political leaders how to serve and “how to envision a Boston that could truly be a home to everyone.”
On a picturesque sunny spring day, the flags on the plaza were at half-staff and a rainbow-colored wreath stood next to a podium — a nod to King’s Rainbow Coalition, which sought to enlist all racial groups under a general banner of progressive politics. Wu declared Tuesday a citywide day of remembrance for King before holding a moment of silence for him.
The plaza crowd included city councilors, state legislators, and city chiefs and department heads. Multiple officials cited King’s work on affordable housing, specifically his push to create Tent City, a 270-unit mixed income complex at the edge of the South End. Inside City Hall, a few people queued up to sign a book of remembrance next to a portrait of King.
City Council President Ed Flynn, whose father, Raymond L. Flynn, defeated King in the 1983 mayoral contest, described King as “a giant not only because of what he accomplished in his life, but the passion that he held for his community.” King, he said, devoted his life to racial equity and social and economic justice.
“He helped unite a city,” Flynn said. “It was a divided city and through Mel King’s leadership, he brought people together.”
The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s environmental chief, told the crowd, “In whatever capacity you knew Mel King, you were touched by his presence and by his legacy.”
And Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said King was “great in life . . . sufficiently enlarged and remembered in his passing.”
A public viewing for King began at 4 p.m. at the Union United Methodist Church on Columbus Avenue.
Hundreds waited in a line that snaked out into Titus Sparrow Park for a chance to pay their respects to King’s family and pray beside his open casket inside the church. Portraits of King throughout his life were printed on large posters and set up at the head of the church, surrounded by colorful flowers.
Wu, Raymond Flynn, former acting mayor Kim Janey, Senator Edward J. Markey, Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden, former city councilor Charles Yancey, and former councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson were each seen making their way into the church.
“Mel King was to Boston what Martin Luther King Jr. was to the entire country,” Markey said in a brief interview outside the church. “Mel was our conscience. He was our leader to fight for a better, more inclusive Boston, and his message is now embraced by an entire generation of young people.”
Yancey, a city councilor from 1984 to 2015, looked back at the long line of people waiting to enter the church as he reflected on King’s impact on the city.
“His vision was to bring the entire community together, irrespective of gender or race or even political philosophy,” Yancey said.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers, who assisted King’s 1983 mayoral campaign with getting people registered to vote, called King “a soft-spoken giant of a man.”
“He was morally too good to be in electoral politics,” Rivers said, smiling.
Following the viewing, hundreds sat in the pews as people took turns sharing remarks and remembrances about King and his legacy. Some wept as they shared stories of how King inspired them to be better students, activists, neighbors, and community leaders, as members of King’s family sat nearby and listened.
Before the speaking began, the Rev. Gerald Williams rallied the audience to its feet and called for applause to celebrate King’s life. The clapping and cheers filled the church.
King’s funeral service is set for noon Tuesday at the Union United Methodist Church. Tickets are required, and about one-third of the 600-seat church was set aside for the general public. Those tickets were released Friday and quickly ran out.
A live stream of the service will be available at satellite locations in City Hall and the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury, organizers said. The service will also be streamed on the church’s website.
King, an educator and advocate for affordable housing, especially in the South End, served as a state representative for 10 years. City Hall and the Bolling Building are being lit up in rainbow colors as King is honored on Monday and Tuesday, Wu’s office said.
Rainbow lights were also shining at the Government Center MBTA station, the University of Massachusetts Boston Integrated Science Complex, One Financial Center, Center Plaza, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, as well as the Zakim and Longfellow bridges on Monday.
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