Clennon King, Nutty Racial Provocateur

16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    King, 37 at the time, had ventured to Oxford for the express purpose of becoming the first black student at the all-white state school?four years before James Meredith broke the Ole Miss color barrier, generating widespread havoc. As King waited in line to register, school officials approached him, then escorted him to the administration building to confer with the registrar. According to King, the registrar informed him that it would take "some time before they could process my application, probably until after the last day of registration. The situation was just about hopeless." King asked to return to the registration line, but was ordered to leave the grounds, forcibly carried from the building by state cops, deposited in a waiting station wagon and whisked off to jail.

    Pressured by noted civil rights attorney C.B. King?Clennon's younger brother?doctors at the mental hospital released King on June 18, pronouncing him sane, and the state attorney general indicated that Mississippi likely wouldn't pursue charges. Clennon King hopped a plane for Atlanta, then moved on to Albany, in southwest Georgia, where he had been raised, declaring, "I don't want to study in Mississippi if I'm not wanted. I think Gov. J.P. Coleman should apologize to me, and that the state should reimburse my family for the expense of setting me free. I'm disillusioned." Whereupon the hulking King, in a quixotic "career" that mixed roles as reverend, professor, habitual political candidate, civil rights shape-shifter and indomitable provocateur?a man whose chroniclers, almost without exception, gingerly refer to him as "eccentric"?spent a significant portion of the next 42 years attempting to crash other exclusive parties.

    Born July 18, 1920, to C.W. King, a respected Albany businessman and onetime wagon driver for Booker T. Washington, Clennon Jr., the eldest of seven sons, entered college at 16, earning a BA from Tuskegee Institute and a master's in history from Case Western Reserve University. He studied Egyptology, read hieroglyphics and affected an English accent. Teaching posts at a handful of Southern colleges followed, culminating in a job as a history professor at the all-black Alcorn A&M College in western Mississippi, where in March 1957 nearly 600 students boycotted classes, demanding King's dismissal and hanging him in effigy after he lambasted the NAACP and openly supported racial segregation. Alcorn declined to renew his contract at the end of the 1958 school year.

    After the Ole Miss brouhaha, King's life progressively unspooled: Citing "insidious persecution in the United States," he sought political asylum in Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica in the early 60s (those nations' governments declined); in 1960 he ran for president, representing the Independent Afro-American Party (with 1485 votes, he finished 11th of 12 candidates); the same year, after splitting from his third wife, he botched kidnapping his six children from their mother in California. That stunt, plus his failure to pay alimony, resulted in his arrest, but he jumped bail, fleeing to Hawaii, then roved the globe for six years?Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, Libya, Ethiopia. Returning to the U.S., he turned himself in and served four years in San Quentin.

    No less active in the 70s, King embarked on a series of doomed political candidacies, getting trounced for Georgia governor in 1970, the Georgia state legislature in 1974 and, in a Georgia triple whammy, the state legislature, Dougherty County Commission and Albany City Commission in 1976. Those '76 campaigns featured King advertising a $100 reward to anyone who'd vote for him. Vote-buying being illegal, King was convicted, with a judge proposing a sentence of one year's probation. Rather than accept the offer, King appealed.

    Inexorably drawn to conflict, King, who had set up shop in Albany as pastor of the Divine Mission Church, launched a gambit to desegregate the nearby all-white Plains Baptist Church one week before the 1976 presidential election that pitted then-President Gerald Ford against Democratic challenger (and Plains Baptist deacon) Gov. Jimmy Carter. King and three other blacks applied for membership, and were promptly rejected based on the church's 1965 policy barring "Negroes and civil rights agitators." A major stink ensued in the national press, with many observers, including Carter, characterizing King's efforts as "politically inspired." But King pooh-poohed criticism, pointing out to The New York Times that his membership drive's timing was "no timing at all, but God times things. I don't know why God timed it this way."

    After his vote-buying appeal fizzled in 1978, King hightailed to Miami the next year. From an apartment building he owned, he operated the All Faiths Church of Divine Mission, the Arenia Mallory School of Religion, the Miami Council for Church and Social Action and the Party of God, the latter providing cover for additional failed runs for office, notably a 1996 campaign for Dade County mayor that included candidates' forum appearances in sweatpants, t-shirt and fuchsia lipstick ("The Egyptian pharaohs wore lipstick," he explained to Miami New Times). Meanwhile, King battled prostate cancer for years, finally succumbing on Feb. 12 at the age of 79. (His death prompted President Clinton to pardon King's younger brother, Preston, a prominent UK academic who has lived in exile since his 1961 conviction for draft evasion, so that he could attend Clennon's funeral.)

    Clennon King led a ferociously singular existence, one that often echoed the initial suspicions of Mississippi authorities back in 1958, a contention buoyed by his call to arms for his 1993 quest for a seat on the Dade County Commission:

    You've been fucked by all the smart-asses. So, now, on Tues., March 16, 1993, vote for a crazy nigger.

    Send tips regarding departed worthies to: quickandthedead@aol.com.