It is impossible to overstate the impact Mel King had on my life. His example inspired a career in tenant organizing and housing advocacy and a lifelong passion to save the South End as a racially and economically diverse community, not just at Tent City but by organizing more than 2,000 South End HUD tenants to save their at-risk homes as affordable housing, one building at a time, over the past 30 years.
I first met Mel in 1974, shortly after starting at the South End Project Area Committee (SEPAC), the elected Urban Renewal committee that grew out of the Tent City protests in 1968. Nothing happened on the Tent City site itself until October 1974, when the BRA abruptly advertised the land for an 18-story luxury high rise. SEPAC convened a neighborhood Task Force, co-chaired by Mel, to develop community Guidelines for mixed income housing. SEPAC adopted the Guidelines and blocked the luxury high rise plan.
In weekly Task Force meetings, Mel guided group discussion to focus on what we really wanted, not what we “thought we could get.” That was my first exposure to Mel King in action. He had an uncanny ability to intervene at exactly the right moment in every meeting, to move the group discussion to the next level of understanding. He always knew how to use his presence in each space to maximum effect. His approach was always inclusive and respectful, and empowering to everyone in the room.
Soft spoken and gentle, Mel could be forceful and courageous in challenging injustice and micro-aggressions when needed. A poet, he had a deep understanding of the power of language to liberate or oppress. After one contentious meeting in 1978, Mel rad his poem "Struggle" at the next meeting and looked me in the eye after he read it. I felt empowered, recognized and loved.
Mel was there at every step of the 1978-1983 campaign to build Tent City, from founding the Tent City Corporation, speaking at yearly rallies, to daily pickets in 1981 blocking the parking lot to demand housing. In 1980, Mel served breakfast to protestors on the future Copley Place site at the “This Could Be Your Last Chance to Eat Here” demonstration, remembered by people decades later who saw it on TV. Mel’s 1983 campaign for Mayor cemented commitments from the other candidates to support TCC’s goals for mixed income, community-controlled housing, which Mayor Flynn implemented after the election.
Over the decades, Mel brought his organizing approach to literally every setting—from community and tenant meetings, Statehouse meetings with legislators, candidate forums during the 1983 election, small groups to large. His manner with individuals was equally empowering—always gently challenging you to be better than you were, to do more than you thought you could do, to take it to the next level.
During the 1983 election, Mel’s vision of personal liberation and growth linked inextricably to community empowerment and racial justice, set the substantive and moral tone of the election. He was consistent in carrying this message to every voter and neighborhood, a transformative moment for Boston. After the election, the power of Mel’s message and the continued presence of the Rainbow Coalition ensured that Mayor Flynn would carry through on commitments to address racial divisions in the city. Mel King emerged as the indisputable moral conscience of Boston.
News coverage since last week has not fully done justice to Mel’s impact across the US. Elected to the legislature as an iconoclastic radical and one of only a handful of Black representatives, Mel quickly developed a capacity to pass cutting-edge, progressive legislation—for community development, food and agriculture reform, education, divestiture from South Africa and more. By 1977, Mel had emerged as a national leader for the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies, ensuring his proposals were emulated by progressive officials nationwide. Through the Community Fellows Program, Mel directly mentored and inspired hundreds of talented agents for change in communities across the US.
Mel was a brilliant policy innovator. In the early 1960’s, Mel and Marty Gopen created job training and youth development programs at United South End Settlements which served as the model for the Job Corps and other War on Poverty programs nationwide. As a State Representative, Mel convened the Wednesday Morning Breakfast Group at MIT with community practitioners and academics to incubate pathbreaking legislation, which Mel then worked to pass. He had an unmatched capacity to bring people together to achieve visionary change.
Mel understood that what happens locally is quantum linked to what happens globally. He supported liberation struggles from South Africa to Palestine and Northern Ireland, mentored and trained youth from Mumbai to Cairo, and presented workshops in Cuba. His famous weekly brunches often featured visitors from around the world, who shared the table with local activists and neighborhood residents alike. He understood and taught that none of us are free, until our brothers and sisters everywhere are free.
In recent years, Mel was a frequent speaker at Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants membership meetings. Representing “Love Is the Question and the Answer”, Mel joined MAHT’s City Rent Subsidy Coalition to win Mayor Walsh’s commitment of City funds for low income rent subsidies. Arriving in a wheelchair to push the Mayor in 2019, Mel was forceful and effective in helping persuade the Mayor to act. This was perhaps one of Mel’s last organizing campaigns. As Mel told the press in January 2020 when Walsh announced the plan, “Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork.” Up to 900 houseless families and individuals will find permanent homes as a result.
Mel was an avid proponent of the power of personal connections with people on the “Street”. For decades, he connected with people on Columbus Avenue outside his Tech Center office. As they passed, almost everyone knew and spoke with Mel.
When we named Tent City “Tent City”, some objected by saying, that if you lived there, you’d always have to explain to people why it was named that way. Exactly right! We wanted the story to be told.
What more appropriate tribute to our city, than to rename “Columbus Avenue”, Mel King Way?
Mel King: Rest in Love and Power.