Melvin H. King was born and raised in what was known as the New York streets section of the South End, near the current site of the Boston Herald American. "It was a mixed neighborhood," he once told a reporter. "The kids I played with were named Cohen, Finnegan, DeCicco, Kowalski, and some were Chinese. They were mostly the kids of immigrants." So was he, one of 11 surviving children of a longshoreman from Barbados and a woman from British Guyana. When he was 13, his father died, the family went on welfare, and he learned that "people equate low income with low values." He took his education in the Boston public schools seriously, graduated from Technical High, and then continued at all-black Claflin College in South Carolina and at Boston Teachers' College. Upon graduation, he became a teacher in the Boston system, but left after a year to take up social work with neighborhood teenagers at the South End Settlement House. From 1952 through 1967, he worked there and lived in an apartment on the building's top floor. In 1961, and again in '63 and '65, he ran as the sole black candidate for the school committee; each time he gained the liberal endorsement as the "most attractive Negro candidate the city had ever seen"; each time he finished seventh in the race for the five committee seats. With each defeat, he appeared to grow a bit more alienated; after the last, he was quoted as saying, "Many people (in Roxbury) see secession as the solution."
Then, in January of 1967, he was fired by the directors of the settlement house, who apparently felt he was getting a little too independent-minded. (The chairman of that board was a young Beacon Hill lawyer, Herbert Gleason, who would within a year become the top lawyer under the new mayor, Kevin White.) But when 5000 people signed a petition backing him and the Herald Traveler editorialized strongly on his behalf ("Melvin H. King stands six feet five inches tall, but his stature among the people of Roxbury and the South End seems far above his physical height"), the settlement house quickly rehired him. Within a few months, King moved on to a better-paying job with the Urban League, though not before leaving behind the beginnings of a community group that would do battle with City Hall and lead to the most celebrated clash of his career.
The issue back in April of '68 was the same one raising tempers in the South End just last week—urban renewal, which was them decimating the area's housing stock and uprooting many of its residents. (In 1960, the South End had some 50,000 residents, according to housing consultant David Smith; today it has fewer than 30,000.) "We were sort of casting about for a way to demonstrate what urban renewal meant in the South End," recalled Kay Gibbs, "and lo and behold, there was this parking lot (at Dartmouth Street and Columbus Avenue, where a building had once stood) owned by the city fire commissioner. What started out as a low-key demonstration turned into a riot. We had a few cars blocking the entrances, and then one of the parkers tried to run down one of the people standing in the driveway." The intended victim, Martin Gopen, took exception to this treatment, tore off the car's antenna and smashed its windshield. "The police were in the process of arresting him," said Gibbs, "and Mel and several other people attempted to intervene."