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King has been active in creating community programs and institutions for low-income people in Boston and is the founder and current director of the South End Technology Center. He and his wife, Joyce, married in 1951, are parents of six children, ranging in ages from 38 to 53.
King's mother, Ursula, was born in Guyana, and his father, Watts King, in Barbados. They met and married in Nova Scotia and immigrated to Boston in the early 1920s. King, born in 1928, in Boston's South End neighborhood, was one of eight children born to the Kings between 1918 and 1938. He graduated from Boston Technical High School in 1946 and from Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1950 with a B.S. degree in mathematics. In 1951, he received his M.A. degree in education from Boston State College and then taught math, first at Boston Trade High School and at his alma mater, Boston Technical High School.
In 1953, King left the classroom to work with at risk youth, becoming Director of Boy's Work at Lincoln House, a settlement house in Boston's South End community. He continued his community work focusing on street corner gangs as Youth Director at United South End Settlements (USES). He also worked as a community activist and urban renewal and anti-poverty organizer. He was let go by USES when he promoted and supported neighborhood control versus USES and government control over the urban renewal and federal funds to assist poor people. King was then rehired after protests from the community over his firing and was given the job as a community organizer. King, then founded the Community Assembly for a United South End (C.A.U.S.E.), to give tenants and community residents a voice in their communities.
In 1967, King became the director of the New Urban League of Greater Boston. He brought job training for the unemployed and organized the community around public school, employment, and human services delivery issues. In 2003, King created The New Majority – an organization and program uniting Boston's communities of color– Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans – uniting them around candidates for elective office.
Boston Redevelopment Authority protests and Tent City
In 1968 Mel King helped organize a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) office on Thursday, April 25, 1968 in protest of a planned parking garage that was going to be built at the corner of Dartmouth and Columbus Streets in the South End, a site where housing had been leveled. The next morning, Mel King organized an occupation of the lot.
While facing police retaliation, for the next three days between 100 and 400 people occupied the lot. They built tents and wooden shanties and put up a large sign welcoming the media and visitors to "Tent City." Celtic's legend Bill Russell, who owned a South End restaurant, provided food for the protestors. The story received extensive coverage in the local media. In honor of the demonstration, when a housing complex at that site was dedicated on April 30, 1988, it was named "Tent City." Mel King told reporters that the key to the project was convincing ordinary Bostonians that they had to play a role in the development of their neighborhood.
Political campaigns and endorsements
King ran three times for a seat on the Boston School Committee in 1961, 1963 and 1965 – being unsuccessful each time. In 1973, he was elected as a State Representative for the 9th Suffolk District and served in the Massachusetts Legislature until 1982.
In 1983, when the incumbent Mayor of Boston, Kevin White, withdrew from contention after 16 years in office, Mel King ran for mayor against Raymond Flynn. Though King secured the African American vote by wide margins, King ultimately lost to Flynn, an Irish-Catholic with roots in South Boston.
In 1970, King created the Community Fellows Program (CFP) in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He served as an Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Community Fellows Program for twenty-five years until 1996. CFP, a nine-month-long program brought community organizers and leaders from across America to reflect, research, and study urban community politics, economics, social life, education, housing, and media.
In 1981, King's book, Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development was published by South End Press. It focused on development in housing, education, employment and politics in Boston from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Upon his retirement from MIT, King established (in the Tent City context of Boston's Back Bay) the South End Technology Center to provide computer training for low-income people.
In addition to writing Chain of Change and journal articles, King has used poetry to share his messages.
- King, Melvin, Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, South End Press, 1981. ISBN 0-89608-105-2
- MassMoments: "Activists Erect Tent City in Boston"
- Boston Phoenix: "Still going strong at 75, former Boston mayoral candidate Mel King reflects on a life of political activism"
- Interview with Mel King about living in a diverse city for the WGBH series, Ten O'Clock News
- "WGBH: Gail Harris interviews Mel King"
- Time Magazine: "Boston wins by a landslide .. a black takes the primary in a racially scarred city"
- Dorchester Reporter: "The Campaign that changed Boston: 1983"
- MIT News Office: "Conference to Honor Mel King"
- South End Technology Center@Tent City
- The New Majority: Uniting Boston's Communities of Color
- Historymakers Profile: Hon. Melvin King