Grassroots International would like to pay tribute to Mel King, a great civil rights leader, organizer, and human rights defender in Boston, where the office of Grassroots International is based. Mel passed away at 94 years old recently, having devoted decades to struggles for the dignity and self-determination of poor and working-class people. He was a friend and an ally to social movements worldwide and touched the lives of many in the Grassroots International community.
Mel fought passionately against racism and poverty. He indicted capitalism and the exploitation of the poor and working class by the wealthy elite of Boston – a city with contradictions of anti-slavery abolitionism in its history, yet the pervasiveness of structural racism in its modern-day workings. Together with residents of Boston’s neighborhoods in communities of color, he fought against apartheid, multiple wars, and police brutality. He organized in favor of national liberation movements, affordable housing, good-paying jobs, and more.
He believed in coalition building, grassroots mobilization, and self-determination. He was committed to building coalitions of poor and working-class people to demand that the needs of the people be prioritized over the nepotism that characterized so much of the policy-making and decisions about resources.
Mel’s organizing was on the frontlines of the most formidable struggles in the U.S. In the early 1960s, neighborhoods in Boston where poor and working-class Black, brown, and Indigenous people lived were bulldozed through so-called “urban renewal” plans, including the community in which he lived. These neighborhoods were often torn down for parking lots, highways, and other high-use developments that benefitted wealthy people. Family-owned businesses, shops, and other cultural and community life forms were destroyed. In protest, Mel mobilized 1,000 people in a targeted community and created an encampment called Tent City. This action eventually led to a mixed-use development that included affordable housing and other community-building resources. However, the fight continues today, with Boston’s wealth disparities worsening.
Mel believed in building the political power of people oppressed by systems of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. He was an anti-racist, feminist, and internationalist who expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggles for liberation and with the Cuban people for their work to eradicate poverty and confront US imperialism
He also challenged philanthropy, criticizing the lack of support for people directly affected by the problems and ignoring the solutions they had for the conditions they faced. “We’ve been getting crumbs,” he once told a group of funders. “We’re no longer going to accept crumbs.”
Mel was born and raised in Boston, the son of Caribbean immigrants. He regularly hosted Sunday roundtables at his home, open to anyone who wanted to join. Over the years, many activists, leaders, and community people did. One of his most profound beliefs and values was that love is the question and the answer, a paradigm shift for many organizers working in the city.
Mel believed in the importance of communities of color having land to grow their own food. As a state representative, he helped bring in soil that was the foundation of many of Boston’s urban gardens back in the 1970s. He was a founding board member of the Boston-based Urban Farming Institute, joining the board in his 80s, when he was not joining other boards because the cause was so close to his heart.
Among his multiple connections to Grassroots International, Mel inspired Maria Aguiar, who now chairs our board of directors, to apply for the Director of Grantmaking and Advocacy position at Grassroots (a role she held from 2001-2010). Maria shares:
I first met Mel King in the summer of 1972 when I was just settling into Boston, working as a counselor for the first-ever attempt at a bilingual summer camp for the South End’s children and preparing to work as a bilingual teacher. I became involved in tenant organizing and the fight to prevent the displacement of African American and Latino working families who were threatened by the empty promises of urban renewal, which folks referred to as urban removal.
Over the next 30 years, our paths frequently crossed, from building a Third World Solidarity coalition that included anti-apartheid and Cuban solidarity activists, Palestinian, Eritrean, and Puerto Rican independence activists, and Haitian and Central American anti-dictatorship and human rights activists. This coalition was also supported by Assaf Kfoury, one of the esteemed founders of Grassroots International. We also found ourselves at marches, political events, and picket lines in support of the Third World Jobs Clearinghouse. This coalition aimed to ensure hiring Black and Latino workers on construction sites funded by the city.
Mel King was always a beacon of light and love. He encouraged everyone to build unity, which was the foundation of his successful organizing of the Rainbow Coalition. He coined the slogan: “We all came in different boats, but we are all in the same boat now.” His active international solidarity was demonstrated repeatedly over the years and was motivated by his great feeling of love and a constant struggle to defend human rights, self-determination, and social justice. I am honored to have known and been inspired and encouraged by him.