King, as in mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  July 13, 2009

There were 23 arrests, including that of King (the arresting officer, incidentally, was Charles Barry, later Governor Michael Dukakis's secretary for public safety). "In the next day's Herald, strung out all the way across the front page, there was Mel, bare-chested, with several policemen strung out along his arms," Gibbs recalled. "For many people, that was perhaps the most vivid image of Mel, and it gave rise to the notion of Mel as a violent, radical, out-acting individual." The demonstration and others inspired by it led to a halt of demolition in the area, the establishment of a community group empowered to participate in the urban-renewal process, and other concessions from City Hall. For King, the publicity surrounding the clash served to establish his reputation as a militant, a reputation he solidified later through other much-publicized incidents.

In 1969, for instance, as head of the Urban League, he protested what he felt was the inadequate support given black groups by the United Fund charity drive (now the United Way) by staging a dramatic raid of the Fund's annual awards banquet. He and several supporters, according to one newspaper account the next day, "collected uneaten rolls and table scraps throughout the hall (and) as they dumped them at the head table . . . King said, "We will no longer accept crumbs from this organization."

Still later, as a fledgling member of the Massachusetts House, King attracted more attention for his refusal to conform to that body's long-standing coat-and-tie dress code. He eventually won the right to wear his dashiki on the floor, but not before he had words with his colleagues, including then-House Speaker David Bartley. Recalled King, "We came in the first day wearing a jumpsuit, and Bartley came over and raised the question about my dress. I asked him if it was a matter of law, and he said no, it was custom. I said, well, so is racism and discrimination." End of round one.

Mel King's first day must have been an unnerving experience for Beacon Hill. He had still another encounter when he drove into the parking lot outside the State House that day, according to one of his South End constituents. "The way I heard the story," said Stephen Kinzer, a long-time political activist (and former Phoenix columnist), "this burly cop started chasing him and telling him the lot was reserved for reps. So Mel got up out of the car, extending himself to his full 6-feet-5, stuck out his hand and said, 'Representative Mel King of Boston, pleased to meet you.'"

To Kinzer and to others who have known King well through the years, the image he has acquired has little relation to the man. "There's a tremendous contrast between the appearance and the reality," Kinzer said. "Mel looks like an Isaac Hayes type: all he needs is sunglasses to appear like the most terrifying Mau Mau ever to crop up in the fantasies of a Ward 17 precinct captain. But in fact, he is the most soft-spoken, thoughtful, compassionate politician you'd ever want to meet. The contrast between the stereotype and the true Mel King is considerable."

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Related: Racial healing, Holding his punches, A very long way to go, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, Isaac Hayes, David Smith,  More more >
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    To begin with, I'd like to set down the political and ideological frame of reference under which I try to live.
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    This article originally appeared in the July 24, 1973 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

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