Longtime Boston civil rights activist Mel King, whose 1983 campaign for mayor helped the city begin to repair some of the racial divisions sparked during the school busing crisis, has died. He was 94.
King served in the state Legislature for nearly a decade before becoming the first Black man to reach a Boston general mayoral contest, facing off against a fellow state representative, Ray Flynn.
Gov. Maura Healey ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at all state buildings Wednesday, acknowledging the death of King, whom she described as a ‘dedicated public servant and civil rights champion.’
The election was a test for the city, which had undergone years of strife following the court-ordered desegregation of the public schools in the mid-1970s. Flynn, who represented the predominantly white, Irish neighborhood of South Boston, was an opponent of busing.
But instead of reigniting the discord, the race had the opposite effect, being seen as respectful, even friendly at times.
King brought in support from a range of racial groups, dubbing his movement the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ — a name adopted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson during his presidential campaigns.
‘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,’ King said in a 1993 interview with The Boston Globe.
Mayor Michelle Wu, the first woman and first person of color elected to lead Boston, offered condolences to the family of King, saying ‘his transformative ideas have shaped generations of organizers and leaders.’
Flynn said he first met King, who grew up in the city’s racially mixed South End, when the two played basketball as teenagers.
He said he felt an affinity for King, noting their shared working class roots and collaborative work as state lawmakers.
‘Mel King would be fighting for affordable housing for the people of the South End and Roxbury, and I would be doing the same for the people of South Boston,’ Flynn said. ‘We were just two kids from the neighborhood who fought hard for our constituents.’
King would go on to lose to Flynn by 30 points. But the race came to be seen as a turning point in a city once described as a collection of ethnic enclaves.
Those divisions boiled over during the busing crisis, with South Boston High School becoming the center of racial strife as Black students were bused to the school under a court-ordered desegregation plan.
During the height of the crisis, crowds sometimes threw stones at buses carrying Black students, and police were stationed on rooftops near the school.
‘The city was polarized. It was divided,’ Flynn said. ‘Busing really brought out the worst in the city of Boston. The election brought out the best. People all felt they were part of new opportunities.’