Melvin Miller ’56: “Not going…to stand aside”

The founder, editor, and publisher of The Bay State Banner profiled

Melvin B. Miller
Melvin B. MillerPhotograph courtesy of Melvin B. Miller

“Well, let me just tell you that I’ve always found that I thought about things—even from the time I was in grammar school—a little differently,” said Melvin B. Miller ’56 in an interview with this magazine on the eve of his sixty-fifth reunion. “I was never too reluctant to express a different opinion.”

In keeping with this ethos of his youth, Miller is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Bay State Banner—a newspaper primarily for and about Boston’s African American community, ever since it launched in 1965. Miller said the goal of the publication is to counter mainstream journalism’s “misinformation” about black people in Boston and beyond.         

He began combatting such misinformation in his days at the Boston Latin School, when his teacher showed his class a white-washed image of ancient Egyptians. “Early Africans that looked like they were from the heart of Sweden—that didn’t fly very well with me,” he said. “That teacher was never very fond of me after I brought that up.” Miller displayed his preternatural sense of conviction even earlier when he refused to perform slave songs with his sixth-grade class: “Not only do I not sing them, I don’t want anybody to think that I’m foolish enough to sing them,” he told his teacher, who proceeded to fail him in music.

Formative stories like these populate the opening of Miller’s essay collection, Boston’s Banner Years: 1965–2015: A Saga of Black Success (2018). In 2016, he began commissioning chapters from journalists and scholars, ultimately producing the 400-page book—one that “seeks to refute the negative implications of alleged black incompetence by chronicling black success.”

In the introduction, Miller describes how, growing up in Roxbury, his father exposed him to black excellence and achievement from a young age. Hopeful that his son would pursue medicine, he took special care to introduce him to prominent black physicians. Furthermore, “On every trip to Cambridge, my father would always drive to Harvard Square to point out where I would later attend college,” Miller added. “There was the constant paternal reminder of the ultimate goal.”

Though Miller did not go into medicine, he did attend Harvard. One of the “friendliest and the most gracious” professors he met there taught at the Law School, and the pair bonded over their shared activism. But it wasn’t because of that professor’s influence that Miller began to consider law school. The notion occurred to him while working at an insurance company, where he faced severe discrimination in a post-graduation job. “It was not going to be my life to stand aside and let everything happen,” he decided. A law degree could help him achieve a sense of agency.

He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1964 and became an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts that same year. Inspired by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he founded the Banner as a side project in 1965. But it didn’t take long for his roles as a government employee and a journalist to come into conflict: “The problem was the war came along, and was very, very brutal. And it was impossible for me not to comment on Vietnam,” Miller said. “That created a problem in Washington.”

He committed fully to the Banner in 1966. It wasn’t easy at first, he recalled: “There was no check for me. I stopped drinking, smoking, almost gave up all entertainment.” He had to “live on fumes.” 

Since then, though, the Banner has enjoyed a half-century’s worth of stability. It now reaches 65,000 weekly readers in print and 120,000 monthly readers online. Miller, meanwhile, has received understandable recognition for his brainchild. At the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire’s 2019 conference, “Black Ink: African American News from Slave Songs to Social Media,” he was named a Citizen of the Year for his reporting on “local politics and national issues relating to social and economic justice affecting African Americans.”

In addition to stewarding the Banner, Miller has worked throughout the years to advance the economic position of black people. In 1973, he deployed his legal prowess to save the Unity Bank and Trust Company—the predecessor to OneUnited Bank, now the largest black-owned-and-managed bank in America. In 1981, Miller became a founding partner at a corporate law firm, where he spent a decade striving to develop black business and black wealth. Last month, he was recognized as a Distinguished Bostonian by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

In Boston’s Banner Years, Miller writes that “the achievements of some Roxbury people who might otherwise be ignored need to be highlighted so that future generations will have a clear understanding of how famously some of their predecessors performed.”

“Most media people just sit back, and they might write something, and they pop up ideas, but they don’t do anything,” Miller said. “The Banner always does things. And so sometimes, when I see something needs to happen, then I’ll activate it and get involved and try to make it happen.”

For a snapshot of The Bay State Banner’s influence on one Harvard undergraduate, read “Getting Lost,” by former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Geoffrey Fowler ’00.

Read more articles by Juliet Isselbacher

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