Miller of "The Bay State Banner"

Countering misinformation and chronicling black success

Melvin B. Miller in The Bay State Banner officesPhotograph 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,” Melvin B. Miller ’56 told this magazine on the eve of his sixty-fifth reunion. “I was never too reluctant to express a different opinion.” As founder, editor, and publisher of The Bay State Banner—a newspaper primarily for and about Boston’s African American community that he launched in 1965—Miller said the paper’s goal is to counter mainstream journalism’s “misinformation” about black people in Boston and beyond.

He began combating such misinformation at 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 recalled. Even earlier, he had 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 failed 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 a 400-page book that “seeks to refute the negative implications of alleged black incompetence by chronicling black success” for future generations.

In the introduction, Miller describes how, growing up in Roxbury, his father exposed him to black excellence and achievement from a young age. Furthermore, he said, “On every trip to Cambridge, my father would always drive to Harvard Square to point out where I would later attend college—the constant paternal reminder of the ultimate goal.”

Once he reached Harvard, one of the “friendliest and the most gracious” professors he met taught at the Law School, and the pair bonded over their shared activism. But the notion of going to law school occurred later, while working at an insurance company where he faced severe discrimination. “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. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act inspired him to found the Banner as a side project in 1965. But his roles as a government employee and a journalist soon came 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,” he explained.

He committed fully to the Banner in 1966. It wasn’t easy at first: “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 of stability, now reaching 65,000 print readers weekly and 120,000 online readers monthly. At the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire’s 2019 conference, “Black Ink: African American News from Slave Songs to Social Media,” Miller 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.”

He has also worked for years to advance the economic position of black people. In 1973, he used his legal skills to save the Unity Bank and Trust Company—predecessor of OneUnited Bank, now the largest black-owned-and-managed bank in America. In 1981, he became a founding partner at a corporate law firm, spending a decade striving to develop black business and black wealth. Earlier this year the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce declared him a Distinguished Bostonian.

“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.”

Read more articles by Juliet Isselbacher

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