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BEFORE the "Black is beautiful" outlook became popular among Afro-Americans, it was commonly maintained by both blacks and whites that black college students did not return to the ghetto after graduation. Instead-so the thesis went-they tried to erase all connection with it, attempting, as it were, a sort of intellectual and spiritual "passing." Like most generalizations, this held a particle of truth. Only the most naive or the most fanatical could have expected all college educated blacks to have rushed back to the ghetto.
But this supposition, now dated, was, even then a hollow one. "Black college graduates have always "returned home to take part in the struggle for black advancement. This has been a particularly strong tradition in Boston's small and closely-knit black community."
The speaker, Melvin B. Miller '56. is himself an example of that tradition. A tall, mustachioed, thirty-six year old bachelor, Miller is the editor-publisher of the Bay State Banner, the small weekly newspaper of the Roxbury community. His story-differing only in degree from those of many fellow black college graduates, proves that not only the recent crop of black collegians are committed to social change.
Like most black college students of his day, Miller's background was solidly middle class. His father was a supervisor in the Post Office. his mother had been born into Boston's small black middle class. Though financially belonging to that class. the Miller family scorned its snobbish social practices: the Miller children-Mel has two sisters and three brothers, one of whom. Jack. is vice-president and business manager of the paper-grew up with a wide variety of friends in a Roxbury that was predominantly white. Still young, Mel Miller seemed to be following a path that had often served to separate the members of the black middle class from the concerns of the black masses. He entered Harvard via the Boston Latin School during that period when either school was a particularly comfortable place for blacks. And, after a stint in the Army and an executive level job with a New York insurance firm, he entered Columbia Law School, able to pay his own way.
Prestigious and lucrative positions were just becoming available to blacks when he graduated in 1964, and Miller, with his excellent educational credentials, had planned to take full advantage of them. "I wanted to become a well-heeled lawyer. Participating tangentially in the problems of social change," he recalls with an ironic smile.
But he changed his mind in the spring of 1964 after witnessing an enacument of an all too common scene: the police vs. the black community. Some black teenagers had accidentally knocked over a fruit vendor's stand in Harlem. The vendor immediately called two nearby foot patrolmen. A crowd gathered, and the fight was on. "I realized then." says Miller, "that I could not follow standard procedure, that the problems of the black community had to be wrestled with on a much more immediate level than I had had in mind."
MILLER returned to Boston that summer, and, rejecting several lucrative job offers, became involved in managing a local political campaign. He soon discovered the inadequacy of the communications within the black community. When the two existing community newspapers-both white-owned-brushed off his recommendations for alleviating the problem, Miller decided to start his own newspaper. The first issue of the Banner appeared the following fall.
Mcanwhile, Miller had joined the U. S. District Attorney's office in Boston as an assistant U.S. Attorney. Intending to be the disinterested publisher of the Banner . he hired people to operate the paper while he continued working downtown. But the Banner ran into financial difficulties almost immediately, and Miller resigned from the U.S. Attorneys' office to devote full time to it. That the paper's editorials had been consistently attacking the Government's anti-poverty program (as being too paltry) only made his decision to resign easier. "I couldn't very well continue in the Government's employ," Miller says, "while my paper was attacking their programs." Though the decision to resign may have preserved his journalistic integrity, it was a personal financial disaster. Drawing no pay at all (the paper couldn't afford it). Miller lived on ten dollars a week until the paper became financially solvent a year later.
Now rather comfortably established in a building near the devastated Madison Park area, the Banner is not without its critics in the black community. Some have complained that the paper is failing in its role as a community leader, that it is not as militant as it should be. Others complain about the amount of advertising. Still others have gone so far as to hysterically accuse Miller of wanting to take over the community.
The contention that Miller is attempting to "take over" Roxbury is as ridiculous as it is hysterical. Miller has carefully avoided involvement in community organizations, a restriction that extends to his twelve member staff. "Our feeling is that we can't sit on the boards of these organizations and maintain our objectivity in the eyes of the community," Miller says.
Miller says the Banner's supposed lack of leadership (militancy) is not as clear-cut as it seems. "The Banner can be a community leader only in a secondary sense. Our main job is to set the facts before the community, so that its decisions on different issues can be based on a knowledge of all the facts."
"Critics who charge us with shirking our duty don't understand the difference between a newspaper and a pamphlet. Except for the editorial page. we don't attempt to influence people toward any one political stance."
The Banner is certainly the most effective news medium operating in the black community, but as Miller readily admits, whatever influence it exerts is almost impossible to measure. "I would say that whatever influence we do have is indirect. We inspire people to act or take a certain stance on a certain issue." Miller says.
Concerning the amount of advertising, Miller says it is an absolutely essential part of the paper. "Not only does it serve to keep the cost of the paper down (15c per copy), but it also supplies important information to the community."
Miller will discuss future plans for the Banner only in the most general terms: he envisions an all-inclusive communications corporation for the black community. In any case, those plans are intimately linked with the future of Roxbury as a black community. Of all the major cities Miller believes Boston is most likely to resolve its urban crisis. "It contains the ingredients for success: the white community has a long liberal tradition and a general willingness to get involved; the city's black population is relatively small (only 15 per cent of the total population) and highly ambitious. We have a substantial number of people in the black community determined to make it a productive part of the city."
Obviously Mel Miller is one of that number.
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