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Civil rights leadership in our local community: Exploring the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and others

By Eastern Bank Team , Jan. 12, 2024
LBJ with Martin Luther King and cabinet meeting

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with other leaders in the mid-1960s (Marion S. Trikosko, photographer, US News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

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Boston has a deep history of civil rights activism and leaders. Among them are iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., as well as locally based activists who have left a lasting, local impact. A few examples among many include:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.: While not originally from Boston, Martin Luther King Jr. had a significant impact on the city. He earned his PhD in Theology from Boston University in 1955 and in the 1960s made several visits to the city to deliver powerful speeches to encourage Bostonians to join the nationwide movement against racial injustice. King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance contributed to the city's ongoing commitment to civil rights, including when he led a protest march from the South End to Boston Common in support of school desegregation.
  • Mel King: A Boston-based activist known for his dedication to civil rights, economic development and affordable housing, Mel King played a significant role in the desegregation of Boston's schools in the 1970s. As a community leader, he sought to address systemic inequalities and promote inclusivity in all facets of urban life, emphasizing the importance of grassroots organizing and community empowerment. As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, King represented Boston’s South End, where he lived his entire life. In 2016, we were honored to recognize him and his wife Joan for their contributions.
  • Elma Lewis: A Boston-based arts and education advocate who used cultural enrichment as a tool for social change, Elma Lewis founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston in 1968, establishing a cultural hub in the heart of Roxbury. Lewis played a crucial role in promoting African American arts and culture, fostering talent, and providing a platform for artists to showcase their work.

There are many ways Boston honors the legacies of these and other civil rights leaders, including through commemorative initiatives, community engagement and educational programs. The Embrace sculpture, a powerful testament to unity and equality, was unveiled on the Boston Common in January 2023. This installation symbolizes the intertwined arms of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, who met in Boston in 1952. Local institutions, such as the Museum of African American History, curate exhibits and programming about the history and contributions of civil rights leaders, and community organizations such as Embrace Boston drive research and policy, programming and education as platforms for citizens to engage with the racial equity principles championed by these leaders.

“Honoring the legacies of civil rights leaders, including Dr. King, is a great reminder of the sacrifices, struggles and progress of those whose focus has been on achieving opportunity for all,” said Dr. Imari K. Paris Jeffries, President and CEO of Embrace Boston. “Their stories are powerful reminders of the roles we can all play in driving out any form of hate and working towards a more equitable future in Boston.”

At Eastern, we strive to do our part to broaden support for economic inclusion and mobility across the communities we serve. Initiatives like Equity Alliance for Business support lending and establishing banking relationships rooted in equity. If you are interested in research, Eastern Bank Foundation Fellow Jeff Fuhrer’s book, The Myth that Made Us, How False Beliefs About Racism and Meritocracy Broke Our Economy and How to Fix It, describes racism as the root problem contributing to disparate outcomes in the U.S. economy and solutions for a path forward.

By fostering dialogue, promoting education, and engaging with history, we can all continue to honor the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, ensuring that the message of opportunity resonates through Boston’s contemporary narrative. Join us in celebrating some of our local leaders past and present who have had a local impact: Celebrations for Good.

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