“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” This phrase, triumphantly proclaimed by the victor of a 1948 cricket match, also aptly explains the genesis of Mel King’s life of service.
Melvin H. King cover photo copyright Séan Alonzo Harris Photography
At a pivotal point in Boston’s history, Mel King selflessly devoted himself to uplifting his community during the post-WW II years when the civil rights that most white Americans took as their birthright was still being blatantly denied to African Americans. During this time, many of Mel King’s neighbors also found themselves in the cross-hairs of a bureaucracy whose primary goal appeared to be to displace them from their South End community under the guise of urban renewal. Mel joined with colleagues and neighbors to step into the gap of that community despair without regard for any personal ambitions and he has held steady in that continuing struggle for over seven decades.
Much has been written about Mel King over the years so rather than repeat the countless accolades that he has received for his numerous accomplishments, I will take this time to share what King had to say regarding his blueprint for the Black community’s future taken from a book he wrote which was published in 1981, Chain of Change. In that book, King examined Boston’s Black community development from the 1930s through the 1980s for the purpose of understanding how that community could move forward from lessons learned.
”…for our future as well as our past, we must go beyond our history and analyze our experiences as part of the process of planning our next efforts….What have we learned…What can we do differently and better?” (Chain of Change)
The South End of Mel King’s youth was a place with strong community and familial bonds – a multi-ethnic neighborhood of immigrants consisting of numerous multi-generational households. Those families desired the same upward mobility promised by a life in America for themselves and their children that all Americans aspired to. Education and hard work was seen as the demographic-blind vehicle to achieve that success and Mel King’s family was no different in their aspirations. One of nine children of a mother born in Guyana and a father born in Barbados, Melvin Herbert King’s (b. Oct. 20, 1928) childhood in the South End was limited in material resources but rich in shared cultural and community experiences. His family practiced an African-American tradition of activism that grew out of the Great Depression and the Great Migration of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and they were particularly inspired by Jamaican activist, Marcus Garvey. King’s father was a union organizer who early in life taught Mel King the value of group organizing to achieve common goals. That lesson was one of the first that Mr. King learned and it has guided him throughout his career.
King’s 1950 graduation from Claflin College in South Carolina as a math major prepared him to attend Boston State College (now UMass Boston) where he received an M.A. in education. As a new math teacher, King was exposed to the deleterious effects that systemic discrimination had on entire categories of people, especially young Black youth which prevented them from accessing the benefits that education provided. These Black youths’ lack of achievement was largely due to the net of systemic racism that they were trapped in.
The realization that racial inequity was deeply embedded into American culture and that superficial solutions that benefited a few would never address the core problems that we faced as a society. This was another lesson that influenced King throughout his career, and it propelled his evolution from educator to activist, a position he has maintained up to the current day and a position that placed him in the fore-front of Boston’s political turmoil for the past seventy years.
In Chain of Change, Mel King divided Boston’s Black community development from the 1930s through the 1970s into three stages: a Service Stage, an Organizing Stage, and an Institution Building Stage.
1. Service Stage: This was a time up to the early 1950s, when the community was dependent on necessary services from others. During this stage, programs and political boundaries were established by power brokers outside the Black community and that made it impossible for local residents to take responsibility for the operation of their own neighborhoods. The media messaging that ran in concert with these actions was that local residents were incapable of taking responsibility for themselves. Except for those appointed by outside power brokers, that messaging was intended to undermine the confidence of any other residents who stepped forward to instigate change. Their lack of experience led to a lack of confidence which led to failure and the cycle continued until it became ingrained into the collective human psyche of the community. Today, that media messaging has been termed, “subconscious bias.”
The unspoken truth was that the economic exploitation that came from this dependence on those outside the community was never going to be willingly relinquished because it was simply too profitable.
2. Organizing Stage: The 1950s and 1960s were a time of racial turmoil and social unrest in the United States and African American people across the country began to understand their own capacity to serve themselves and to realize the power of collective work and responsibility. The celebration of Kwanzaa, which was developed in 1966, dedicated the third day of the seven-day celebration to the concept of Ujima, a Swahili word for collective work and responsibility. Mel and his colleagues were not thinking in a vacuum when they developed their ideas about community empowerment but they were tapping into a national movement of Black identity and racial pride, and anger over the assassinations of Malcolm X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King along with several other African Americans in Boston achieved several organizing victories during this period. Some of those efforts successfully achieved the desired goal, and others that may have fallen short of their goal, nonetheless, successfully built community around aspiring toward a shared goal and purpose. All of their efforts were impressive in their ambitions to create systemic change to the status quo. In the late 1950s, their organized protests to the de facto segregation of Boston Public Schools included challenging the make-up of the Boston School Committee by supporting the unsuccessful candidacy of Ruth Batson to that elected board in 1959.
In 1960, they founded a group, Citizens for Boston Public Schools (CBPS), and ran a slate of four candidates, including Mel King, for the School Committee in 1963, but were again unsuccessful. That same year, several Stay Out of School Days, were organized to bring attention to the continued de facto segregation of the Boston Public Schools. Their continued efforts eventually led to the decision of a federal judge to mandate busing as a solution in 1974.
The community kept fighting to be represented on the School Committee until an African American, John D. O’Bryant, finally won election to the Boston School Committee in 1977, after a nearly twenty-year struggle.
They organized the Boston Action Group, BAG, to educate the community about selective patronage and boycott campaigns in order to understand how the collective buying resources of the community could be used to influence the hiring of African Americans into certain industries and companies. In another effort, they proposed a general stoppage, STOP, of all activities, work related, educational, commercial, recreational, and transportation, to publicize the inequities experienced by the community on so many levels.
A Jobs Clearing House program channeled educated African Americans into middle management positions. The protests of Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW) highlighted the reality that the welfare system only perpetuated cyclical poverty. The protests of that group in the summer of 1967 precipitated the Boston Police Riots of that same year.
Centralized Investments to Revitalize Community Living Effectively (CIRCLE) was begun as an idea to centralize, and therefore, maximize the buying power of the numerous community agencies that developed during this time in an effort to build a community-based economy. The Community Assembly for a United South End (CAUSE) developed as a counter-narrative to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s plans for the urban renewal / displacement of South End residents. A representative model for community planning, CAUSE, of which Mel King was a leader, gave rise to the power of tenant organizations to influence development and it led to the construction of a mixed-income housing development, Tent City in the South End.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) was organized by Ellen Jackson and Ruth Batson in 1966 to protest the de facto segregation and sub-par standards of the Boston Public School system. This program took children from Boston neighborhoods with under-performing schools such as Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and bused them to school districts with high-performing schools such as Brookline, Newton, and Milton.
The United Community Construction Workers (UCCW) union was organized in 1968 in reaction to the unexplained firing of 64 Black construction workers from an FHA financed construction project. The goal of the UCCW was to seek jobs and skills training for Black workers without sacrificing accountability to the community. The Boston Black United Front was formed in reaction to the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. That group consolidated 85 community organizations under a single umbrella for self-actualization and determination. Although it only lasted four years, it led to a revival of many community efforts, activities and celebrations.
Mel King’s participation in all these activities culminated in his 1967 appointment as Director of the Urban League of Boston which they promptly renamed, the Boston New Urban League. That position allowed King to test all the lessons he had learned over the years about community development and empowerment, the main one being that, “full community development comes only through community control.” Internal operations for the organization did not always proceed smoothly and King quickly realized that the alignment of employment philosophy and personal lifestyle actions were not always in sync (employees could talk the talk but did not necessarily walk the walk) so the group sought ways to integrate the two so that they were mutually reinforcing.
“We felt there was no better way for our staff to gain skill at community development than to be involved in the problems that impinged on their own lives.” (Chain of Change)
These and many other organized efforts illustrate the extent to which the community was committed to challenging the status quo of the inequities of Boston. Many of them did not achieve the desired outcome but the very nature of trying became a successful learning process that the community benefited from in the Institution Building Stage.
3. Institution Building Stage: This stage in the 1970s and early 1980s was made possible through the accumulated successes of the organizations and individuals from the previous Organizing Stage. Acquired professional and organizing skills, and political successes allowed African Americans to enlarge their spheres of influence beyond their immediate community. This also provided an opportunity for the community to not just build institutions in the image of those that had exploited them in the past, but a chance to improve those flawed institutions to better serve those same communities.
“Beyond just getting our share, we were working to change the equality and character of our share.” (Chain of Change)
Some of the areas of activities that were affected by this institution building stage were: court ordered desegregation; the fight against racism in the construction unions; the creation of the Third World Jobs Clearing House that sought common ground with African American, Asian, and Hispanic communities; and the organization of the Boston Jobs Coalition that guaranteed the following allocation for projects for Boston construction workforce to be 50% for Boston residents, 25% for minority workers, and 10% for women workers. Activist Chuck Turner was instrumental in the forming of both of those organizations.
Other activities were the creation of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) whose mandate was the transfer of Roxbury business from white to Black control through the organization, Freedom Industries; and the founding of Unity Bank, the first Black owned bank in Boston.
The creation of the Community Development Finance Corporation (CDFC) legislated funding for community development projects with community non-profits such as the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation (LRCC), Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion (IBA), the South End Tenants Council (SETC), and the Roxbury Action Program (RAP) among others. These non-profits and others created hundreds of affordable housing units in their respective communities in a fight against gentrification. Many of them are still in operation today.
The creation of the Black Caucus of 1971 was organized to influence political and election outcomes and it resulted in redistricting and the election of five African Americans to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Doris Bunte, Bill Owens, Royal Bolling, Sr., Royal Bolling, Jr., and Mel King. Those representatives became the Massachusetts Black Caucus in 1972. That group successfully organized a redistricting campaign that resulted in a new Black Senate seat in Boston, the first for the African American communities of Massachusetts. That seat was won by Bill Owens.
The Black Political Task Force was formed in late 1978 to, “establish a unified voting constituency among peoples of color” (Chain of Change). Its inauguration initiated the 1979 Mayoral campaign of Mel King. Although King’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it gave hope to a new generation of Bostonians, that perhaps, the city was finally changing for the better. It also resulted in a new community based political organization, The Boston Peoples Organization (BPO).
“The Boston Peoples Organization is committed to gaining control of or neighborhoods, jobs and government. Through community, labor, and electoral organizing, we strive to overcome racism, sexism, economic exploitation and all forms of oppression. …we are united around a vision of Boston as a community of diverse people who can respect each other, …collectively solve our common problems …and fulfill our potential to the fullest extent possible. …it is time to come together, to move out of our isolation, to eliminate the oppressive conditions that surround us, to create a humane society.” (Chain of Change)
The theme of collective community development runs throughout Chain of Change and the book’s epilogue reinforces this idea of community. It consists of excerpts of interviews of a community of cohorts that Mel King recorded in 1974 – 75. These nineteen African American activists of Boston were involved in the various organizing activities he described in his book, a sort of who’s who of Black Boston activists and they read like a conversation between colleagues: Alajo Adegballoh, Ruth Batson, Dennis Blacket, Melnea Cass, Noel Day, John McCormack, Leo Fletcher, Ellen Jackson, Elma Lewis, Marion McElhaney, George Morrison, Paul Parks, Ted Parrish, A. Robert Phillips, Byron Rushing, Sarah Ann Shaw, Chuck Turner, Archie Williams and Virgil Woods. Those interviews provide a satisfying conclusion to King’s thoughtful analysis.
Mel King concluded his analysis of the evolution of Black community development in Boston with a vision, the idea that equitable community development is necessary for a sustainable city and that to achieve that requires equitable human development,
“…the most natural ingredient for developing the best possible resources in a community are the people themselves. It is not the physical structures, or the dollar signs that count in the end, but the way people feel about themselves, each other and the place they live.”
The power of Chain of Change is that Mel King’s vision is as relevant today as it was when the book was published in 1981.