Reflection on Mel King

By Marianne Salza and Dan Murphy

Social activist Melvin Herbert King (October 20, 1928-March 29, 2023) believed in the power of unity. His emphasis on compassion, respect, and inclusivity strengthened families, neighborhoods and political institutions throughout Boston.

“In the 130-year history of United South End Settlements, there are few people we hold in higher esteem than Melvin Herbert King, a man whose extraordinary life intersected our organization at a number of historic points,” wrote Jerrell Cox, Chief Executive Officer, United South End Settlements, in a letter to the community. “Mel was a pioneer, an activist, and a radical champion of love, harmony, and justice between all people.”

King was a passionate supporter of racial justice, desegregation, and affordable housing. He was a leader in the Tent City protests against urban renewal in 1968, when hundreds of displaced residents gathered in a South End lot where homes once stood. The area was eventually transformed into the Tent City affordable housing community, with 269 units for mixed-income families.

“Mel King was a giant in Boston’s civic community. For so many decades, his character, courage, and commitment inspired other Bostonians to similar heights,” shared Kenzie Bok, Boston City Council, District 8. “In my own family, it’s a point of pride that my grandfather was able to assist in the legal work for Tent City. Mel leaves a deep legacy in both the physical infrastructure of justice in Boston, and in the hearts of generations of people and public servants here. I hold him and his family in my prayers.”

When King ran for mayor of Boston in 1983, he became the first black person in the city’s history to reach a mayoral general election. During his candidacy, King promoted solidarity through the Rainbow Coalition, unifying people of all ethnicities, sexualities, and beliefs.

“People must come together, moving out of their isolation to challenge conditions which exploit us. Alliance, cooperation, coalition: those are the only paths to follow,” wrote King in an excerpt from his 1981 book, “Chain of Change,” in which he analyzes the struggles of the black community in Boston. “I want to make sure the city is working for everybody. We just need to hold hands and understand that love is the question and the answer.”

King served as an educator, youth director, and provided computer and technology access to lower income families.

“Mel King was a giant in Boston. He positively impacted so many aspects of our lives in Boston; especially in housing and education,” said State Representative Jay Livingstone. “I was honored to meet him.”

Family and friends of King are inviting members of the community to a two-day celebration in his memory. A visitation will take place on Monday, April 10, 4-8pm, at the Union United Methodist Church, 485 Columbus Avenue, Boston. A 6:30pm speaking program will include remarks by members of the community who were impacted by King’s life.

Funeral services will follow on Tuesday, April 11, 12pm, at Union United Methodist Church. Guest tickets are required for in person admission at Services will be live streamed at Boston City Hall, the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, and

Brunch will be held on Sunday, April 16, 2-5pm, at Florian Hall, 55 Hallet Street, Boston.

“Mel King was an iconic leader for the fight for racial justice, economic justice, and housing justice in Boston, and especially in our neighborhoods,” said Johnathan Cohn, Policy Director, Progressive Massachusetts. “His legacy is present throughout the South End.” 

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