Taking measure of black politics at edge of Boston campaign crowd

Summertime is political rallying time. And in Boston this week, this one seemed no different - at first glance. Car horns blasted. A loudspeaker blared. The posters ''Mel King for Mayor'' were everywhere. But there were differences from other recent campaign events. And a lot could be learned by playing the edge of the crowd.

More than 1,000 had gathered in the heart of Boston's black community to show support for Melvin H. King, who is trying to become Boston's first black mayor. This day he would gain the endorsement of Harold Washington, the man who, against all odds, had already accomplished a similar feat by winning the Chicago mayoral race. One of the most intriguing questions of this city's campaign is whether or not Mr. King can conjure up the Chicago experience in Boston.

To some extent, the rally was a test of black political strength. Though mostly black, the crowd was sprinkled with whites, Hispanics, and Asians. ''For an area that's not politically aware,'' said participant B. Pendleton, scanning the crowd from his bicycle, ''it's a pretty good turnout.''

From a national perspective, the King candidacy seems ripe.

In the past two years, a groundswell of black political activity has been felt across the United States. In 1982, black voting surged ahead 5.8 percentage points from 1978, bringing the black turnout level closer than ever before to that of whites, according to Congressional Quarterly. Faced with an economic squeeze, strongly opposed to Ronald Reagan, and boosted by the recent victories of Mr. Washington and others, black voting is expected to increase further. There is even talk of a black presidential candidate in 1984.

But seen from Boston, the prospects are more clouded. Of nine candidates, King is generally seen to be running third behind front-runner David I. Finnegan and Raymond L. Flynn. He must place at least second in the preliminary voting to qualify for the final election. And the past three months have not been especially good ones for King. A longtime supporter of poor and minority groups, he has lost important endorsements, such as the Boston Tenants Campaign Organization, which endorsed Mr. Flynn instead.

Causing even more ripples was an editorial written by Melvin Miller, one of the area's most well-known black editors, who urged blacks not to vote for King. King cannot win, he says, because black voters make up only 17 percent of the city's registered electorate - much less than in Chicago. Minorities could exercise more leverage by supporting a candidate who can win, Mr. Miller said. That debate is not unique to Boston. The NAACP (National Asssociation for the Advancement of Colored People) is officially opposed to a black presidential candidate in '84 for the same reason.

If the Boston rally is any indication, however, many minority people view the situation much differently.

Walter Clay Jr., for one, is not enamored with King as a candidate. But he supports him. ''Give the guy a chance,'' he said at the rally. ''We've tried one way, now we'll try another.''

It is a controversial view, but King supporters say they can win second place in the preliminary election by grabbing the lion's share of the minority vote and holding their own among white liberals.

The King campaign is following the lead of Washington's successful registration effort in Chicago. Since January, more than 22,000 voters have been added to Boston voting rolls - an important boost in a city in which registered voters total a little more than 225,000. And Everette T. Sheppard, one of the Election Department commissioners, estimates 85 percent of those new registrations have been made in the minority community.

Over and over, speakers boosted the rally's theme. ''Register, register, register. Vote, vote, vote,'' the crowd chanted.

By the time the rally was over, more than 320 had registered.

Recent press reports have suggested that King may not have overwhelming support among minorities. In the last election in 1979, according to Mr. Miller, King won only 55 percent of the black vote.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.