Posted on 03 July 2016 Return
There would be few community activists who have been fighting for social justice as long as Boston’s Mel King. Born (in 1928), raised, and still a resident of the city’s South End area, he has seen the neighborhood transform from one of the city’s poorest in the 1960s into its current “gentrified” state. His community activism began in 1953 and has ranged from working with street gangs to issues involving schools, jobs, poverty, housing, and other social justice causes. He is also the founder of the Rainbow Coalition Party, a former adjunct professor at MIT, a former state representative, and the first – and to date only – person of color to make it as far as the final election for mayor of Boston. Now, at the age of 86, he remains active as the director of the South End’s Technology Center at Tent City. I caught up with him there in October.
What are the keys to motivating a community?
I think the fundamental aspect of motivating a community or an individual is a belief that they are deserving. I believe, frankly, that they don’t get motivated until they say and understand that. And so their action is based on a mindset that says that they are somebody, they count, they’re deserving. If you think about it from the person who I believe is the most significant reminder, and who made the significant statement, Rosa Parks, when she said, “I’m deserving of a seat like anybody else.” And once you say that, you’re going to act that way. No change comes to any person or group until they assert their value.
What do you see as some of the trials and tribulations that young activists of color must be prepared to endure, and is it still harder for black activists than white activists?
Well that to me is a very interesting – I don’t know if I want to call it a dichotomy… In this country, in many ways, it doesn’t seem to matter. Look at what happened to Occupy [the Occupy Wall Street movement]. White activist youths, mainly, and the police and others have hesitated to move them or arrest them or whatever. And so yes, sometimes the difference in the issues which black youths or youths of color focus on is where, because of the way this culture is – some people won’t believe it when I say this – but this culture has an ongoing guilt complex about the history, the story, the racism, deprivation, that their white ancestors have perpetrated, and which is still in the loins of some of the folks that are around.
So I say all that to say that the impact on youths of color, black youths, when they’re organizing, is against some institutional practices that devalue them. So if you’re going to look at Ferguson, if you’re going to look at the number of youths who have been killed by police, the number of black folks who have been killed by police, in contrast to the numbers of people who are of Caucasian background, you know, the numbers are staggering. And so when the youths of color go out, and they are attempting to make some change, they are in a more dangerous position in terms of its impact on their lives.
The second piece is that their efforts are usually against the structure of the society and the culture. I didn’t say that white youths – and you know, there were many white youths 50 years ago who were involved in the struggle. That’s why I have a little hesitancy about that because I like to look at it on the basis of “Which side are you on?” And I try to remind people that about the Brown brothers. When I say the Brown brothers, well there was John Brown [the antislavery agitator] earlier and there was James Brown now, and they both had a role to play. With John Brown, who understood the evils of the culture at that point, and actually gave his life in order to challenge it. So he was on the side of making humanity, and respectful humans, a part of what motivated him. Whereas we have the other side, where it’s greed, manifest destiny, and a belief in control by military might. It was interesting the other day, to hear the president say we have the most powerful military in the world. Wow. What does that mean? It means you think you have license to engage anything you don’t like with the power of your military.
Well, that’s the way this country has developed and that’s how the manifest destiny led to going across this culture, this country. And as a result, the population that was living here underwent a form of genocide at their hands. And so you asked the question about the difference – it’s pretty difficult because I like to think of it as “What side are you on?” Are you on the side of dignity of all folks, with a belief that they’re all deserving and have a right to share in the resources that are God-given, or that it’s manifest destiny, greed, where one group has a right to determine what level of access goes to them, and care little about what goes to others. Unfortunately we still have that in this country.
Black activists at the community level – should they look for white allies to help them since it’s still a white-dominated power structure or could that be counterproductive?
The point I’d like to make is: What’s the value orientation? It would seem like a slam-dunk that all the churches, all the religious organizations would be at the forefront of working to deliver what they preach on Sunday. I remember in Sunday school we used to sing “Jesus loves all the children of the earth, red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight.” Well, here are people in these churches who sing those hymns, and whose behavior is contrary to it.
And so, what I’m looking for the folks who understand, and who believe in that philosophy, and are going to practice it. I don’t know if you’ve read the book My People is the Enemy by William Stringfellow. He was an attorney and he found he was handling cases for people who were being put out of their houses, etc. And one day he looked up at the people in his church and there were some of the people who were going through the court to get people pushed out of their homes. And so he wrote this book called My People is the Enemy. I think that it’s very much a book that people should read because he clearly understood that these folks who he was worshipping with on Sunday, were practicing something contrary to what they learned on Sunday, on Monday. The point I’m trying to make is that every group, once they’ve defined themselves as deserving and having a right, have to act that way. Angela Davis said something that the Germans [Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller] said about World War II: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Well, I think that people who understand that to its fullest sense, know that allowing a certain kind of behavior that dehumanizes and devalues other people, then the chances are it will happen to them. And so I’m looking for folks who understand that when you harm another person, you harm me as well, and that I’m not going to allow that kind of harm to be impacted on me or anyone else. I believe very firmly that your question needs to be framed in terms of “Which side are you on?”
How important is it that a young activist have support from his or her family?
Well, obviously we all want that to be the case. My thinking is that, as a family, parents or whatever ought to be smiling because they must have had some nickels in the quarter, in terms of how that child of theirs came to be involved in these issues. And it didn’t come out of the blue, it came out of something in the culture that they brought their children up in; what they’ve been exposed to. Now, some of the reasons have to do with fear for their children getting hurt, and that’s legitimate. But I think that deep down inside they understand why that is going on.
Do you feel there are particular qualities that activists need to have in their nature?
My fundamental belief is that they have to have what I call “the technology of the heart.” We have a lot of innovation on the earth, and if you look at the spelling of “earth,” and you look at the spelling of “heart,” they have both “ear” and “art” in them. And the ear has a lot to do with listening. And to really listen, I learned from a Father John Harmon, means a willingness to change. Unfortunately for the most part, the “art” in “earth” got turned away from… And you know the bible saying that says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Well that’s the message that initially said technology should be for enhancing life. We have turned it into taking life. So if I think about heart, and the art or technology in heart, [it] has to do with wealth, and caring, sharing for folks. One of the things I think about is the magna carta and that it was a way for the barons to tell the king that these folks who were captives of the landed – in terms of their being serfs and whatnot – that when accused of something they ought to have a right to a say.
As a young person, of 17 or so, I was struck by reading that because it said to me they must have said that if they were accused, they want to have an opportunity to get their story out. And so I thought that was an example of a technology of the heart. And then when I read in the bible, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I saw those as technologies of the heart: the caring, the love. And so I would like to get people to understand that what we really need now is a way to change how we see each other.
A belief that all the children are our children and that we want the best for all of them. And so we’re talking about black, brown, yellow, red, white – whatever their background is, we have to say these are all our children and we want the best for all of our children. And I think once we can get into that and we can think of how we make that happen. And I get back to the religious piece where Jesus told the disciples to get out of the way and bring the children.
Well, that’s why I keep coming back to: Where are these preachers? How come they can be in Georgia, Alabama, or Boston and be on the sidelines while their parishioners are doing these horrible things to people? So something has got to happen in terms of the technology of the heart, where people know that love is the question and the answer. I’ve written about this in terms of what I think is the difference between the love of power and the power of love. One opens doors, one builds walls. And it seems to me that we have to understand that difference, and that technology of the heart, to honor what it says in the bible: All the tribes are welcome, all the gifts are shared.
When it comes to less-experienced black activists, are there any tactics that are fairly universal that they need to be aware of because of their race?
I think that, innately, given the history of this country, they know. And what I think is most important is that whatever their strategies and tactics are built on is the fact that they are deserving. Look at how they were effective in teaching folks and learning from folks in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, etc. And look at how that combination of learning teaching, teaching-learning made a difference in communities. They showed enormous courage in that.
The underpinning philosophy of non-violence is a very important piece. What I think was missing in all of that effort was the defining of it in terms of civil rights and not human rights. Civil rights – and I think that some of the African [American] leadership tried to explain this to Malcolm X and some other folks – when they said when you’re talking civil rights, you’re talking about the political system in the country. And it’s difficult for people outside of that to get into. But if you’re talking about human rights, then everybody can get into it. [He points to the far wall.] If you look up there you’ll see I have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What we try to get folks to understand is the method of movement that we all need to be about. If you’re looking at what’s goingon in Detroit, that access to water is a human right. I think we need to get people using the appropriate terminology. When we do that, then we look at things in human terms and it becomes important, as we try to move from the attempt to isolate, to inclusion.
On a practical level, and taking into account the fact that the world has changed, do you think that activists these days need a certain amount of training?
For example, the media has changed a lot, and dealing with the media is important. Or dealing with authority, arrests, and so forth. Let’s be careful. The change in the media is their methodology but not their message. I had a friend who was talking about what happened in Haiti, and how the people with money watch USA TV. And that’s where they were getting their information.
A lot of the people in villages and other places, that didn’t have access to that, they had what they call “telemouth.” Television, telemouth. And as I understand it, they have a tape recorder and they have things put on the tape recorder, and they played them in groups that gathered. Now, the important distinction was: What was the message? So, yes, the media have a powerful impact on framing the nature of the culture, etc. But that doesn’t mean that each individual – and groups – cannot come up with a way to counter that. Maybe it’s through music. Obviously it gets attention through art, through this media that we’re talking about. We have now the Internet, Facebook etc. – with those things they can go across the country instantaneously. So, yes, it has an impact but what we need to continue to understand is that the power that exists within each person and each group can move the systems in ways that can make a difference. It may not happen in 24 hours, but it certainly can happen in a year or two or three or whatever. So I think that we have incredible opportunities to get the stories and their importance out – with music, art, and with the latest technologies.
Do you see any particular lessons for black activists from both Occupy Wall Street and the Climate Convergence in New York City?
I think it’s framed in the holy saying: Where all the tribes are welcome, and all the gifts are shared. It seems to me that that has to be the fundamental question. And here we have this Ebola outbreak and we have incredible resources being put into finding ISIS. And we have to scrape to get resources to stop an epidemic that is killing lots of people.
So where’s our leadership coming from? And that’s one of the places where we really have to understand, a) that we do have the capacity to make sure that everybody is well fed and has a roof over their heads, and has the chance to enjoy all the gifts of creation, and b) we have to get off the greed and focus on need. I believe very fundamentally that, if we’re not built on the basis of love, then no amount of weapons – and it’s been proven – is going to change the relationships on the planet…none of them.
If you were an activist starting out now, embarking on the kind of life that you’ve led, has the world changed in any way that you’d now need to make different allies? Given that all tribes are welcome, you have to start somewhere to network and to build numbers, so would you approach it differently, tactically, now?
The belief is that change is not only possible but inevitable. And that the idea is to bring folks together who believe that, and expectations that are based on the power of love. Taking the movements from the streets to the suites. I don’t see how ultimately it cannot win.
For activists working at the community level, do you see common, vital issues that they need to focus on or does it vary from community to community around the country?
It always varies. However I think that, much in the same way that the youth activists etc. went south to join the folks there [in the 1960s], there ought not to be any of those kinds of boundaries. I’m a believer that there’s going to be a movement in Detroit around water and those issues. And wherever people have been denied access to the fundamentals of human rights, is where we have to be.
Is there a motto or a maxim that you’d offer to young activists or that you live by that you think they could use?
Well, I believe that change is inevitable and possible. And that love is the question and the answer.
I wanted to ask you about that. I read where you had said that but I don’t understand what you mean by love is the question. Would you explain that?
Well, when you think of love, what do you talk about?
Empathy and compassion.
What do you see?
Well, I think in terms of those less fortunate and I think in terms of my young son, because it’s a deep bond that I can really tune into the sense of love.
You just gave both the question and the answer. Let me give you a little example. I spoke at a rally for May Day, the workers’ day. And there were several hundred, maybe a few thousand folks. And workers – many of them who were recently in the country. And they had a sign that said: “We Are a Nation of Immigrants.” I asked them to take it down and put up one that said, “We Are a Nation of Neighbors.” There’s a difference. And I said, “Love thy neighbor” and I got applauded in four different languages. Because you changed the nature – we know that using the “I” word [immigrants] sets off negation. But using the “neighbor” word sets off love etc. So, the question and answer.
Are you optimistic about the future of neighborliness in America?
As long as there are folks who understand the power of love, I’m definitely optimistic.