January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

In Memoriam: Melvin H. King

Jonathan A. King, Ceasar McDowell, Ruth Perry, Sally Haslanger
Mel King

Boston area newspapers have carried many articles recently describing the extraordinary contributions of Mel King to the social and political life of Massachusetts. He was a leader in struggles for school desegregation, a brilliantly effective affordable housing advocate, and the first Black man to run for mayor of Boston.

Less is known about his role at MIT as director of the Community Fellows Program. This groundbreaking program brought community leaders to MIT who were not scholars or researchers, but were influential in the social and economic struggles of our time. They added a much needed locally aware dimension to MIT and to the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, often more focused on projects in Dubai than on local public housing and the need for low income housing in the neighborhoods adjoining MIT.

Mel was an individual of the highest moral fiber, who opposed injustice locally, nationally, and internationally.

In the mid 1980s, students formed the Coalition Against Apartheid, pressing MIT to divest its considerable stock holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa. Faculty support was led by Willard Johnson of Political Science, and Mel and Gretchen Kalonji of EECS. The students built visually dramatic symbolic shanty town structures to call attention to conditions in South Africa. The administration leadership of President Paul Gray, Bill Dickson, and Jay Keyser had them torn down. Votes calling for divestment and also opposing the administration’s actions on the shanty town structures were taken at intense faculty meetings. On one occasion, Ruth Perry reported being knocked down by the campus police in a melee with students trying to protect the shanty town. On another, when Mel King walked into 10-250 for one of these faculty meetings, Paul Gray stopped the meeting to announce that Mel did not have voting rights in the meeting. Mel remained his usual calm, respectful, and principled self.

The faculty voted in support of divestment and of the shanty town exhibits, but President Gray and the MIT Corporation refused to divest from South African stocks. However, many other universities did divest, which pushed the US government to reduce its support for the Apartheid regime.

During his historic run for mayor, Mel reached out to all sectors of the Boston electorate, polarized by the battles over busing. Jackie Dee King, Mel’s press secretary and Jonathan King’s wife, regularly accompanied him into South Boston bars and other venues throughout the city where Black people had been actively unwelcome throughout the city. He was open to and embracing of all of Boston’s residents. The election was won by Ray Flynn, but it opened the path for subsequent Black and Latino candidates for city council, state representative, and mayor.

Every Sunday morning for decades, Mel and Joyce King hosted an open breakfast for individuals and organizations with ideas for a better community. Mel personally cooked fried fish and prepared fruit salad for all.

In later years, Mel led the building of the large Tent City housing project in the South End, which continues as a model community for low- and middle-income tenants. But before that he had supported the earlier Tent City encampment here in Cambridge at the site of the former Simplex Wire and Steel Factory that is now high-tech offices along Sydney Street. Local tenants who were afraid of being forced out formed the Simplex Steering Committee back then, which for years tried to protect the low-income housing on the site from MIT/Forest City real estate development plans.

May Mel King’s example continue to provide a beacon for our students, staff, and faculty for many years to come!

For more on Mel King please see: https://news.mit.edu/2023/mel-king-community-fellowship-program-legacy-0407; and https://news.mit.edu/2023/remembering-mel-king-0404.