My friend and mentor Mel King died at the age of 94 on March 28, 2023.
I first met Mel when he was a MA State Representative in the mid-1970s. It was in a State House hallway after a hearing on food and agriculture issues. He was a big man, 6 foot 5 inches, and, in those days, he was wearing overalls to work. He was also bald, bearded, and Black. As I recall, he walked down the hall away from the hearing room still gently lobbying a fellow Representative on the issues. He was working hard for an urban/rural coalition, building community gardens in the South End and other neighborhoods of Boston while rebuilding the Commonwealth’s agriculture infrastructure with farmers, foresters, and others from far beyond Route 128 and Boston’s South End, his district.
Over the next few years, he was the focus of a lot of work around these issues as Boston became a hub of urban gardening and the Commonwealth became a model for new methods of supporting local agriculture. To a great extent, the efforts of those days when there were, at most, 18 farmers’ markets in the state has led to now when there are hundreds, with indoor winter markets and a local agriculture showcase near Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market in downtown Boston. Mel King was instrumental in the early stages of these changes and a brilliant advisor and advocate all along the way. In many ways, the rebirth of local agriculture, in part pioneered in Massachusetts, has changed the world.
In 1983, Mel ran as a candidate for Mayor of Boston. He was the first Black candidate to make it to Election Day. For that campaign, he wore a straw boater hat, blazers, and bowties. He cut a very dapper figure as he talked about a Rainbow Coalition made up of all classes, creeds, and ethnicities. He ran against Ray Flynn from South Boston. They’d been on opposite sides of the contentious busing issue which integrated the Boston schools but they knew and respected each other. The racially charged electioneering some feared never materialized. Flynn won handily but Mel’s Rainbow Coalition was a bridge between Fred Hampton’s original Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1984. In 1997 Mel founded the Rainbow Coalition Party in MA, later turning into the Green-Rainbow Party of MA which still exists. King told The Boston Globe a decade after his mayoral run: “What I believe people want more than anything else is a sense of a vision that’s inclusive and respectful and appreciative of who they are. What the Rainbow Coalition did was to put that right up front, because everybody could be a member.”
As Mel practiced electoral politics he also worked as an Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and created the Community Fellows Program (CFP) there in 1970. The nine month program brings together "community organizers and leaders from across America to reflect, research, and study urban community politics, economics, social life, education, housing, and media.” He was a director of the program until 1996 and the Mel King Community Fellows program continues today. The Fellows organized a conference on healthcare this year which happened a few days after his death.
With his equally formidable partner, Joyce, Mel had a practice of Sunday open houses where people would cook and eat and talk and organize. I went to a couple, once to help Mel think through solar possibilities for his South End row house on Yarmouth Street and another time with a friend who was working on prisoners’ rights issues. Hundreds if not thousands of people passed through his home learning how to make good trouble from a past master.
Before all of this, in 1968, Mel King led a demonstration of more than 1000 people against a parking garage the city planned to build as part of an urban renewal project, replacing housing that had been demolished. It took until 1988 but a 269 unit mixed income apartment complex opened at the site as Tent City, in honor of the protest where the demonstrators occupied the site and slept there in tents. As Lewis Finfer, a longtime community organizer in Boston and director of Massachusetts Action for Justice, said, “He’s the father of affordable housing in Boston.”
In 1997, after retiring from MIT, Mel created the South End Technology Center at Tent City, offering community residents free or low-cost training in computers and technology. It is also one of the inspirations and early sites for a FabLab. In fact, at a festschrift for Mel King at MIT in 2018, I learned that Mel had been instrumental in making FabLabs happen. According to Neil Gershenfeld, Mel was the person who told the folks at MIT Media Lab to take the 3D printers, CNC machines, and other equipment and put them in schools and community centers. Now there are over 1200 FabLabs in over 100 countries. Mel helped set up some of the first ones in Ghana and Norway and proposed midnight computer programs to complement midnight basketball.
Once I heard someone ask him what was the piece of legislation he was most proud of and he said it was passing the Fruition Project, a bill that provided funding for perennial food plantings on public access lands. I had distributed a short note to friends in the local agriculture movement about a public access planting project in Santa Cruz, CA back in the 1970s and someone had passed it on to Mel who made it into law. I was surprised and gratified that the idea sparked Mel’s action and happy that I had, in small way, been one of his collaborators.
Mel King was a quiet but forceful person who never quit. He changed his neighborhood, his city, his state, his country, and the whole world in many different ways without claiming credit and without stopping. He was a friend and a mentor whom I will continue to learn from for the rest of my life.
More on Mel King
Books by Mel King:
Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development
Streets: Poem Book