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Honoring Mel King's Legacy

Dr. Pat Johnson

Mel King’s 94-years on this planet rose above his critics, offering proof of his better angel. He resisted meanness and bigotry in every breath he took. He showed his love of humanity in all his actions. He
loved the city, his city, Boston. Mel lived for this day – the day he would pass his baton to all the diverse lives he touched.

He chose his better angel when the worst was nagging him. Before diversity, equity and inclusion became a part of the lexicon Mel practiced an openness for all peoples and demanded everyone be
afforded the same as elites and the wealthy.

Fundamentally, he was a teacher, and his light was a mirror that moved with you. With a big smile he showed you the way to the better side. He would ask what you had to contribute; letting you look into
the mirror and see for yourself. He was always positive with a “can do” demeanor.

Mel was Boston’s native son. He gave his all to the city of his birth; where his parents, Ursula and Watts King, settled in the South End and where monuments like “Tent City,” the South End Technology Center
and Mel King Square underscore his legacy. Mel’s bequest is the life he lived. It is the movements and organizations he founded to carry on the work of the people; humans of all backgrounds, beings he so
loved, those from all walks that he regularly welcomed into his kitchen with kindness and encouragement for sympathetic introspection. Mel King’s legacy is you, White, Black, Indigenous, People of Color.

We all most certainly will miss him and his unswerving dignity. He was proud but as respectful of the seemingly lowliest of us as he was our most accomplished. In his world everyone deserved a pedestal. Everyone needs to remember his mirror of the better angel; to look at ourselves and choose our best. We would be best to honor Mel’s life of service. His persistent fight for marginalized people of Boston and yes, the world of humans. He was a globalist, and he loved the world, and all it offered, including joy and struggle. Let’s remember his Sunday brunch time gatherings for anyone and everyone. His résumé is an outline of service to the voiceless as well as those who choose to serve humanity. Mel took to heart the values learned from his parents. Immediately upon graduation from Claflin University he returned to the city he loved and continued his study at Boston State College, completing his graduate education. Then he went back to Boston Technical High School to teach at his alma mater, back home to assist those left behind. Mel lived the lyrics of the Solomon Burke song “none of us are free, none of us are free if one of us is chained.”

Mel’s better angel sent him to work with youth at Lincoln House and the United South End Settlements. In search of answers for people he chose to serve Mel founded the Community Assembly for a United
South End. He wanted to give the tenants and residents in the neighborhood of his birth a voice in their own lives, in their community.

That better angel was always tapping Mel’s shoulder and in the late sixties he turned to leadership at the Urban League of Greater Boston. He then could and did provide job training for the dispossessed,
and organized campaigns for public education, jobs and human services. Along that path, those he touched would see Mel’s kindness and concern. They would learn from him the way of truth and the higher plane. He advocated for a better city and world, ready to teach, to stand up and to negotiate. When those he appealed to turned a deaf ear he chose peaceful protest and accepted being shackled, chained and jailed as just another obstacle to a better life for those in the city he loved. You will hear almost everyone speak of Mel with high regard and always a mention of his willingness to collaborate, to hear everyone out. His light was bright because he sought to enlighten others and let them lead. He organized and walked with people, forever hopeful of a better day. So was the path to Tent City. Mel was in the fight for the long haul. He possessed an unshakeable faith in humankind. It took decades of struggle to get affordable homes many Bostonians enjoy. He was steadfast. He just kept teaching and battling until he achieved his goal.  He rejected defeat and concession; always continuing to fight for right and the less fortunate when others felt the struggle was done. He knew struggles are plentiful and continuous. So, he gave everyone an ear and encouragement; always organizing for a better outcome.

While pushing for housing for all Mel convinced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish the Community Fellows Program. MIT made him an adjunct professor in Urban Studies and director of the Community Fellows. Then he touched all kinds of people from all over and he helped them fulfill their dreams. He offered them time to study politics, economics, social sciences, education, housing and media. And after nine months with Mel it was the fellows turn to spread the word and the work. Again, he knew work is never done and you must establish continuing education and programs to accomplish the needs of the marginalized. Mel decided Boston needed him to become a lawmaker and he campaigned to become a legislator. Now mind you, during those same days his better angel told him working at MIT and serving in the legislature also required him to write “Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development,” a guide to continuing the fight, a blueprint for posterity. You would think the world would see his vision; that he was a futurist and maybe let him believe he could rest on his many laurels.

Mel left the legislature and ran for mayor of his hometown, the first serious Black candidate for chief executive of Boston, one of America’s oldest and most historic cities. When the people he wanted to serve chose his opponent for mayor Mel continued to work for Bostonians. He had founded the Rainbow Coalition and there was work to done. After all there were other political campaigns to wage and Bostonians, all of them, to be encouraged to resist bigotry and meanness, the way of the better angel. Aspiring politicians would seek his counsel and he was always available to advise them. Retirement from MIT approached and most accomplished people after decades of service to their city and its people would seek to rest. Mel took his emeritus status and built the South End Technology Center to serve his lifelong neighborhood and its marginalized residents. That was one of the lessons of his father; the wisdom he often cited as always having something to share and to help others in need.  He continued to build his legacy of service to live beyond his days. He had an eye on the future; the planter sowing the seed for trees to bear fruit when his planting days cease to exist.  He made his life about service; leading by walking beside you, with you, encouraging you to respect yourself and others as worthy humans. Mel always talked about protecting the planet and its inhabitants; one of his last efforts was recycling plastic bottles that packaged his nourishment, always organizing and searching for a better way, even with what appears as small efforts. He always looked for and encouraged the best in us.

Mel wrote this verse in his poem book “Streets:”
“we never close the doors to
those in need ones heart
never shut to those we can feed
no matter what we have there is
something to share
the most important of course
is that we care.”

So when you think of Mel’s legacy think of his choice to follow his better angel. Think of your reflection shown in his light; his persistent encouragement to find your better angel. Realize he lived a life to create a legacy that is you. You waging the struggle for a home for everyone, sustenance and work for all. It is up to you to breathe continued life in Tent City, the Technology Center and be the wind that moves all people of his beloved Boston to strive for a better city and world. Honor Mel and pick up the baton he has bequeathed you.

Source:  https://southendtechcenter.org/