Top of Mind: Mel King Extended Version

Boston editor James Burnett: The last time Boston had an interesting mayoral race was 1983, and you played a big part in it. Reading back on it, it almost seemed like an entirely different city. Notwithstanding the fact that incumbents tend to be sort of invincible, why haven’t we seen even more robust challengers? What has happened in Boston in the years since?

Mel King: …I think there’s room for a lot in this year’s mayoral campaign. I think there’s room for serious discussion around the fact that the murder rate is—I’ll just say astronomical, because any amount is very serious. Frankly, I don’t think they have a clue about what to do. I’m not sure I know who does. But I do know that this administration, they have not been able to get a handle on it, or manage the schools.

I think they’ve got a superintendent there now who understands the power of high expectations. But for all they’ve talked about improving the city schools, we’ve had a system of low expectations. We’ve had algebra as a ceiling when calculus should be the floor. This place here, we do things with technology that the school system is nowhere near up to. So we talk about the mayor’s race. I think there’s a lot of room for serious discussion and debate.

Would you go so far as to say that we might we have a vulnerable incumbent for the first time in a long time, assuming Tom Menino runs?

MK: I think that’s funny. I think incumbents are always vulnerable. What is missing is that candidates don’t build their base with real old-fashioned organizing, or now with new technology…. One of the issues is going to be whether they do the outreach across the neighborhoods.

JB: The way you attracted first time voters to your campaign in the ’83 primary—does that same potential exist today?

MK: Always. It always exists. It’s a question of expectation. I’m not one who buys into this hope business, by the way. Hope puts it almost in the realm of chance. I think we ought to be about expecting. It’s the same with the schools. There’s a difference between hoping the teachers will do their work, and expecting them to. There’s a difference between hoping the students will do their work, and having high expectations of them.

Whoever’s going to run for mayor this year, if they can show—demonstrate—a program that will make it possible for people to feel comfortable on the T, on the streets, in the schools, I think you have a chance….

JB: That’s something I’ve heard from other folks. There seems to be a desire, the moment might be right, for a vigorous campaign this time. Because, as you said, there’s room for a discussion, to put it diplomatically. There’s opportunity, perhaps, for the right candidate to hold the administration accountable and present that choice to voters. But do we have the right candidates to seize that moment?

MK: I don’t know if there’s ever a wrong candidate. I think the question is, What are the techniques they’re using?

It’s interesting because you have a situation in which a lot of people take for granted that…the energy from [the incumbent’s] side might not be as high. That the incumbent might take it for granted. Of course, if you have a person who’s in opposition to the incumbent, then obviously the incumbent will escalate.

JB: So far Kevin McCrea is in, and Michael Flaherty. And Sam Yoon may get in. Have any of them come to you for advice, an endorsement, a read on things?

MK: I’ve talked to Flaherty, I’ve talked to Yoon. McCrea was over at the house when he was running for council.

JB: What did you tell them?

MK: Pretty much what I’m telling you, about the issues that I think need to be addressed. And also that they need to do a lot of footwork in the neighborhoods.

JB: Were you disappointed that Ralph Martin decided not to give it a go?

MK: I would like to have seen him run. “Disappointed” is not a word I would use.

JB: What would be?

I think we lost an opportunity to have a debate. Frankly his background was going to energize a good chunk of the community, and that’s always an important thing to have happen. I would have supported him if he had run.

JB: Do you feel like your ’83 campaign—the themes, the technique, the approach—could be successfully applied to present day?

MK: Oh sure.

JB: If the Mel King of then were running today, could you win?

MK: Well, I’d like to think so.

JB: …What’s your take on what’s happened—or is happening, present tense—with both Chuck Turner and Dianne Wilkerson?

MK: As a people, I think we’re very naive about the lengths that people who want to maintain the status quo will go to discredit those who seek to change it. Let me give you an example. There was an article in the Globe the other day about the OneUnited Bank, and the fact that they are getting 12 million bucks from the bailout. That was very interesting, the context. Why are they going after 12 million? Others get billions. Hear what I’m going?

You asked about Turner. Anyone who’s doing anything that challenges people’s perceptions of how we should be comes under a lot of scrutiny. To the extent that [others] can find ways to discredit them, I’m a firm believer that they will do that. You have to put these things in context. Because there’s this tendency to isolate. For me, you have to put them in context. Bring the whole piece together. …I think that it’s important.

As I watch Chuck now, when he was on the city council—it’s amazing that it didn’t get picked up—one of the things he said was “We have to remember that we cannot be responding in the way that they have been treating us.” Really Martin Luther King Jr. We’re nonviolent. The character is the most important aspect of what’s come out of it.

JB: We were talking about Turner and putting the same things in context. The part we didn’t touch on is—and they are separate issues—is Senator Wilkerson. But a different role to have a different public portfolio, if you will?

I don’t know. In the context of who we go after, that’s always also the possibility. I think the issues with her are personal and also get magnified. I thought the Globe was relentless. I also think that that election stuff is taking a lot for granted. After the problem with the signatures and having to run on stickers the first time, that…I think part of the issue for her is to do with a campaign. I’m not sure if she fought back enough or not, because she did and still does bring community support. Taking it for granted cost her.

JB: You’ve spent some time in the legislature.

MK: I was there 10 years. I knew the day that it felt good that somebody opened the door for me and said “Hello, Mr. Representative”—that was the time to go.

JB: People have suggested there’s not enough of that perspective. That people tend to stay, that we don’t have that kind of turnover. People speak well now of Travaglini in part because he got to the Senate presidency, put in a couple of years, and then was gone.

MK: People who choose to make a career of the legislature are the people who choose to make it a career. When I was there, we had so much to do: job issues, the school issues. There was just so much to do.

JB: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I feel like where you’re going with it is: You’re so busy that you don’t have time to get yourself into trouble.

MK: I’m going to put it this way. There’s so many things that emerge from my head about it…. People would call up, and they would want me or my legislative support person to call somebody for them. And I would get on the phone and tell people, “Here’s the number, get on the phone and call these people yourself.” And they would be furious, but then they would call and get in to see who they wanted to see and they would say, “You know what? You were right. I know I can do it, because I got it to happen.”

These would be constituents, people in the community?

MK: Yeah, oh yeah. There’s a slogan that the Panthers have, “Don’t do anything for people that you know they can do for themselves.” I’m a firm believer in that. You don’t want people owing you for doing stuff that they can do themselves. So we built up this thing around constituent services, and of course it’s important, but there are services that constituents have to understand they have a right to….

I remember early on, there was this big issue about this being a development and the speaker, Senate President [Kevin] Harrington, was supporting it—Park Plaza. We were trying to get the Martin Luther King Jr. bill passed. I filed the legislature for making it a holiday. So he called me into his office and he said, “Well, you’re opposed to this Park Plaza thing.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he says, “Well, you want the Martin Luther King Jr. thing.” And I said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute, my constituency didn’t tell me to go down there to support Park Plaza. So I’m not. And I’m going to get my Martin Luther King Jr. bill.” We did. Second one in the country. I think it was second or third.

JB: He was trying to do the horse trading.

MK: It was cuckoo. If you have a legitimate issue, you have only to convince the members of the legislature so you get enough votes to get in. And it should not be on the basis of—

JB: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You vote for my bill, I’ll vote for yours.

MK: Yeah. I have to tell you, we had core people—the legislative caucus with Doris Bunte, [Bill] Owens, I think Owens was there, another one from lower Roxbury—and we got a lot of stuff accomplished….

JB: It doesn’t seem like there’s less to do today, but it does seem like less gets done.

MK: Well, it’s because they’ve allowed the power to be concentrated in the speaker’s office, the Senate president’s office. Anyhow, we went in there with a lot of great people. Barney Frank, Ed Markey, Senator [Jack] Backman. We did with the prisons. There was just so much to do.

JB: You had your school committee campaigns, and then two mayoral races, then the congressional. How did you personally deal with ending up on the losing side of so many campaigns?

MK: The first person who asked me that I think was a fifth or sixth grader after the ’83 race. Maybe it was six, seven months later. I was speaking somewhere, a school. Asked me, How did you feel? And I realized that in all that had taken place, no one had ever asked me what my feelings were about it. Well, my wife had. So I was really impressed with the youngster. I remember that, yeah, I felt badly that I’d lost, because I thought that I’d let people down. I was disappointed, but not discouraged. I learned a lot. I really liked campaigning, the challenge in meeting people.

JB: Do you feel that the communities you represented then—and that you continue to be an advocate and an activist for now—are adequately served today, in terms of leadership?

I’d say yes.… There’s no question about how hard they work, the issues they work on, and their relevance to the folks in the community. What I think is problematic is that the mayor, for example, can end-run them with the clergy. And for me the most significant example of that had to do with the fact that when I had brought the reps, the elected officials of color, together and we were meeting, and then the question of the change in the school committee was on the table—

This was when the committee went from elected to appointed.

The clergy folks went in opposition to the elected officials.

JB: Do you think they did so on principle, or opportunistically?

MK: I don’t know. All I know is that they did. And it made it easier for the legislators across the state to support that issue. And so we have a situation now where a member of the clergy is the chair of the school committee with ostensibly more power in what’s going on with the schools than the elected officials. So if there’s going to be a leadership, it’s got to challenge both the clergy and the mayor.

JB: That makes it tough, because you can’t come up through the clergy to be that next-generation leadership.

MK: I was a supporter of the Mandela initiative in 1986, to have Roxbury and Mattapan secede from the city. Some of the reps, but most of the clergy, were opposed to it. And it was because they bought into this notion that things would get better. And they haven’t. But there’s not accountability that exists around people who side with the mayor when things don’t improve.

So, yes, we have some leadership, there’s some young people who want to ask the people who’ve been in office for a while to move over. I tell them, “Who have you organized?” All of a sudden, they’re going to run for office. That’s okay, but you can’t run and make it without a constituency. Who’s your constituency?

We have a few hundred churches, at least, from the South End to the Milton line. There are 11 community health centers. We have representatives, city councilors, etc., and all of those agencies that we have—the Urban League multi-service center, Freedom House, you name it—we have all these resources. My statement I picked up way back was, “We complain about the dirt, and we have the broom in our hands.”

JB: Who said that originally?

A union organizer. But I’ve been using it because it speaks to the fact that we do have the resources and what we’re trying to do is put together what I call the precinct development plan, where each organization took a precinct and worked on it. We can map out the fact that we are located strategically across this community. And if we did the communication, if we came up, we would be able to make a big difference.

You talked about in broad strokes that things haven’t improved.

MK: Which things?

JB: About the city, the city itself, the conditions in the community.

MK: See, you have to be careful. Folks got together, they organized these places. They now own it, the people own it, etc. There are pockets like this across the city. So we put in place a kind of model that allows this to happen. I know things have changed. Prior to this, they discriminated in terms of housing access, etc., and that’s not the case. Income class issues are still a factor here. I just want to make sure it’s clear that I know things in some ways are better than they were before.

JB: In all that you’ve witnessed in your various careers, what you would cite as Boston’s most finest hour? The thing that made you most proud of your city?

MK: You know the mosque that just went up? Just to have been there and to have witnessed that, I thought, Boston must be a first-class city to embrace something like that. And at this time, given the anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic sentiment. I was so high from just watching them put the minaret up on that. The fact that so many of the religious groups came together to support it. That was one of Boston’s finest for me.

JB: Are you religious yourself?

MK: Am I religious? I went to Sunday school. I learned “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world.” I read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran—that was one of my favorites. I liked the Sufi poets. I can go on and on about things that have impacted my life.… I’m a believer that one of the most important documents was the one where they challenged the king, the Magna Carta. I read Truman Nelson’s The Right of Revolution. I really tried to study the Declaration, the Constitution. I believe in the power of love.

JB: Of all the career labels that you’ve worn—activist, community organizer, politician, poet…I’m probably missing a few—is there one that fits best? That you most want to be associated with for posterity?

MK: I like being called a politician.

It’s not a dirty word in your book.

MK: No.

JB: You grew up in the South End. Is there something you miss most about how the neighborhood once was?

MK: You know the Villa Victoria? Every year right after July Fourth, they have the Festival Betances on the plaza. And Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they have an incredible program, music. It’s an incredible event. And a lot of the white people who live around here don’t get it, and don’t go. But it’s just so wonderful. It’s an incredible event.

A real great friend, Chris Hayes, passed in January. I called him a South Ender’s South Ender. And he rewrote the term “brother’s keeper” in my mind. I am my community’s keeper….

So when you ask about change, on the one hand, yes, I can be reverent about growing up in the South End under the circumstances I grew up in. But there’s a lot of new people and a lot of new things that contribute to the neighborhood now, so we embrace them. One reason why I mention the Festival of Betances is because, for some reason, a lot of the other folks don’t embrace that. So I see a lot of the ideas and richness that is here with the people who are here.

Stokely Carmichael once asked Lerone Bennett about the correct place to be. And Bennett says to him, “Well, wherever you are is the correct place to be. There’s no other place that’s more correct than where you are. If you go someplace else, that’s the correct place to be.” I believe very much in that. In that people, wherever you are, are the people to relate to and build relations and work with, understand their culture, etc.

You don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning the changes.

MK: You embrace the people on the street, go to the restaurants around. You know, a nice little place opened up on the corner of Shawmut and Concord—the woman’s Greek, he’s Indian, and they have a fusion restaurant, Siraj. You should try it. There’s something different across the street, I think they’re from Venezuela.

JB: Oh yeah, Orinoco.

MK: You know Don Ricardo’s is up the street here. Around the corner is Metropolis, they have grits and whatnot. Occasionally, if I want to go uptown to get grits on a Saturday, we can go. I miss the fact that Bob the Chef’s is gone. We have the Beehive, which I haven’t been to. I will. …There’s a lot of great places around. See, if you grow up in this neighborhood and you got into all the kinds of variety of folks and their foods, you can easily get into it.

JB: Where does your interest in technology come from?

MK: I grew up at a time when the images that were shown of people like me were negative. Our parents didn’t let us go to the movies, but then when we got a little older and independent, and we went, and we began to see the images were negative, and so I stopped going. Then I got a chance to go to college, Claflin, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There was a movie theater there—the State Theater was the name of it. And it was owned by and run by black folks. They showed films with people who looked like me, who were doing everyday things. I learned then the big issue was who controlled the content.

Then when I retired, I opened up this place with the distinct idea that this technology, more than the others, put into the hands of every one of us, [gives us] the ability to tell our story to as many people as are online right now. In this interview, it’s my story, but you’ll tweak it to suit your purposes. I put my stuff online, and have it be mine. …Along the way, there are other advantages of knowing about the technology—there’s job training and whatever. But the big issue for me was: I want people to tell their story their way, unabridged.

We’re now working on a thing with the Media Lab called Green Wheel. It goes on a bicycle wheel, and it captures the energy and returns it to the bike. We’re trying to get the state to support this new technology and sustainability issue they talk about. Here’s something that’s local that could grow from here. A new industry from right here.

JB: This is a silly question, but are you a Mac or a PC guy?

MK: Mac.

JB: How do you manage to do it all?

MK: I’ve been pretty good at working with a lot of people who are incredibly brilliant who have an ax to grind. But you don’t have to supervise them—they supervise you.