Over the course of six decades or so, Mel King and Ray Flynn have been friends, occasional allies, historic rivals, and now friends again.
They were the last combatants standing in what many consider Boston’s last great mayor’s race. That was in 1983, the post-busing slugfest in which the city could no longer avoid coming face to face with some very painful realities about race.
Flynn, from South Boston, won and proceeded to lead the city for nearly a decade. King, albeit in defeat, had proved that long-ignored voices in city politics could no longer be silenced. He settled into a permanent unofficial role as the city’s conscience.
King and Flynn — now 87 and 77, respectively— still get together, usually at the technology center for youth that King has operated in the South End for years. And the former rivals have now joined forces to promote a project, directed at youth, designed to promote discussions around democracy and nonviolence.
The goal is to produce a series of ebooks and digital games that encourage young people to talk about nonviolence and other issues. The series would be available for use in schools, youth centers, public housing developments, and other places kids gather. The notion is to use technology to reach children in a format they will actually use.
“Helping poor, needy kids is not a political priority in America in 2016,” Flynn said earlier this week, as we sat in King’s office. “Is this the answer? I don’t know. But I’ll go anywhere and I’ll talk to anybody and I’ll work any place I can to help these kids. That’s my mission in life.”
King said he is attracted to the program partly because it places youth at its center — and “puts the responsibility in the hands of youth to talk to each other, to build the kinds of connections and relations that uses their strengths.”
The Boston Peace and Democracy Discussions Project was the brainchild of Patrick Walker, a former campaign strategist turned education activist. Walker (no relation) was the field director for King’s 1983 campaign. After years of working in campaigns, he became active in education. For roughly a decade he worked behind the scenes for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, hammering out contracts between the city and the Boston Teachers’ Union, while also working to develop educational programs that have been adopted by school systems across the country.
The program is an effort to teach young people a set of values that can help lead them away from violence, and toward a greater sense of unity. The first book in the planned series, “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way,” describes the struggle of a Latino teen to avoid pressure to join a gang.
Walker envisions a series of ebooks focused on 10 core values — such as love and freedom — that can be used to guide discussions about social justice.
Those conversations could take place in youth centers, housing projects, or other public spaces, as well as in classrooms. The ebooks would be given to kids for free.
Walker has been in discussions with an array of city agencies about adopting the materials. The participation of Flynn and King should help fund-raising, as well as boosting awareness of the program.
But back to King and Flynn. The image of two old combatants sitting around talking about their grandchildren doesn’t really fit them. Both maintain busy schedules, and stay deeply engaged with issues.
An initiative built around social justice also resonates with their history. When they ran against each other for mayor, the city was desperately seeking to ease years of tension and violence that had gripped the city since busing began in 1974.
By then, they had known each other for decades. They had played basketball together on a team called the Bruins in the 1950s, when Flynn was the team’s only white player. They later served together in the state Legislature, and occasionally joined forces on legislation.
Their relationship was always more complicated and nuanced than the caricature of a white guy from Southie against a black progressive. In part, it was circumstances of the time that made them rivals.
The race remains legendary partly because it seemed so unlikely. Both candidates represented a departure from the polished style of the departing Kevin H. White . King remains the city’s only black mayoral finalist.
It was a time of change, and Flynn recalls his race against King as a reflection of that: “Two unlikely people surfaced as finalists in that election,” Flynn recalled. “One from South Boston, which had never won an election for mayor of Boston, coming from a very poor, no-influence family. And Mel King from the South End, at that time the same thing, a neighborhood without real power. He represented a large community of people who weren’t being heard at City Hall and in government. So you’d say the people who were supposed to control the city and run the city were no longer in charge.”
For all that separated them, King and Flynn shared a commitment to racial healing, and a passion for the interests of youth.
In that sense, this collaboration is no surprise. King said he was attracted to giving youth an alternative to violence and hatred.
“Love is the question and the answer,” King said. “And that’s the basis of what we’re doing.”
The website for the program is www.efd.global/boston-discussions/