August 19, 2001
Clennon King (A&S 83)
In 1961 Preston King fled the country after a racially motivated conviction for draft evasion. His 40 years away from home came at great personal cost. He missed family gatherings, including the funerals of his mother, father and three brothers, even as his academic career soared.
Every journalist worth his salt knows you dont become the story; you only report it. But here I was, a TV reporter and anchor at a local affiliate in Jacksonville, Fla., trying to position a national story for a relative. A convicted uncle, no less, who had been sentenced to prison, jumped bail and fled the country. On the record, Preston Kings crime was draft evasion.
But off the record, he violated a basic code of conduct of the Jim Crow South: He was a colored man who had dared to demand "respect from white folks." Specifically, he demanded an all-white draft board to address him as "mister," just like it did the white draftees. It was a demand that would lead to a 40-year exile from his family, home and country. Journalist or not, I thought it was time for Uncles Pres to come home.
Uncle Pres is my late fathers youngest brother, a brilliant scholar who had attended Fisk University in Nashville at age 16. At 18, he wrote his draft board in Tennessee requesting an academic deferral from the military to pursue his studies. They wrote him back, saluting him as "Dear Sir" or "Dear Mr. King," each time granting his request. Then in 1957, after graduating and enrolling in graduate school at the prestigious London School of Economics in England, he made a fateful mistake.
During a visit home to his native Albany, Ga., Uncle Pres went to renew his academic deferral at the local draft board there. The board saw he was black and his requests for more time to complete his doctoral program in England were denied. Instead, the draft board clerk ordered him in writing to report for a military physical immediately, this time addressing him simply as "Preston." He wrote her back, agreeing to comply but only when the board resumed addressing him as "Mr. King." They refused his request. So he refused their order.
In a pre-dawn arrest in December 1960, Uncle Pres was hauled out of bed by two federal marshals, booked and taken to jail. He was tried, and an all-white jury convicted him on four counts of draft evasion. Judge William A. Bootle of the U.S. Middle District Court of Georgia sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
In those days, my father, C.B. King, was the only lawyer of color practicing south of Atlanta. So, naturally, he represented Uncle Pres, appealing his conviction. But my grandfather, C.W. King, had other ideas. As NAACP local chapter founder and president and a successful businessman who was economically independent, my grandfather was perceived as a threat by local whites.
Years before, he wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. after the Montgomery bus boycott, inviting King to come to Albany and help blacks register to vote. Aside from my father and uncle, there was another son who had run for president and tried to desegregate the University of Mississippi, and still another who would become president of the civil rights movement in Albany. So with granddaddy as a threat, Preston would be viewed as a target. The way granddaddy figured it, a black man didnt stand a chance of getting a fair shake in a Southwest Georgia courtroom, let alone in one of its prisons.
So, he did what came natural. He told his son to flee. Uncle Pres returned to England to complete his doctorate, beginning an odyssey spanning four decades. I was 2 when he left Albany, and while he had no doubt held me in his arms and perhaps even played with me as a toddler, I had no memory of him. His time away came at a great personal cost. He missed countless family gatherings, including the funerals of his mother, father and three brothers. But his career as a political science professor and theorist soared. He took teaching posts in Ghana, Kenya, Australia and England and authored 16 books.
I can remember a photograph of Uncle Pres on my grandmothers nightstand at what had to be his first book signing, his family noticeably absent. The first time I met him was in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. He brought his daughter, Oona, now 32, and son, Slater, 30. It was Easter 1974, and he had been away from home for 13 years. My first impressions were predictable. I was struck by his looming 6-foot-1-inch frame and his British accent. That black folk could have a stiff upper lip struck me as odd. The accent somehow didnt match the skin color in my mind. But he was so personable.
He would always look me in the eyes as he whispered whatever was on his mind. It made me feel like I was the only person who mattered to him at that moment. Family rendezvous like the one in Ocho Rios were repeated in other places like Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, Accra (capital of Ghana), Bermuda, the Bahamas, Sydney, and countless other stops. It was our familys way of holding Uncle Pres close, when distance made it impossible.
After Jamaica, I flew out of the country three more times to meet with Uncle Pres. We spent Christmas of 1982 together in Kenya, fall 1983 in London together while I was studying law, and a week together in Morocco in spring 1988, just a week after my fathers death. I didnt realize it at the time, but seeds were being sown in me by my parents to do everything I could for this uncle to whom I had grown very close.
Every six months or so, he would call me, and the question would arise, "When will I see you again?" My pat response was, "This summer or maybe this Christmas." But the morning he called me in late summer of 1998 was different. Ten years had passed since I had seen him. I was married and a father of two sons.
Stealing time away to spend with him was getting harder and harder. Then something clicked in the middle of our conversation. I was a journalist by trade. Over the span of my 20-year career, I had seen felons wrongly convicted who went public with their stories and were ultimately exonerated. Whats to say Uncle Pres couldnt do the same thing? All he had done was stand up for what he believed was right. And for that, he had paid a high price.
I grew up watching my mother, Carol R. King, travel far and wide trying to get Uncle Pres home. She had been his greatest advocate, and her efforts to get him home ran the gamut. Trips to the Carter White House. Hushed appeals to an attorney general. Phone calls to senators and representatives. Meetings with Andrew Young and Vernon Jordan and other people of color in high places.
But the result was always the same. No deal. So, what harm would there be in going public with what had been a private affair? Uncle Pres was 62 and while he was in great health, he wasnt getting any younger. He had been married three times and was now legally separated. The worst thing that could happen is the media would report that a fugitive was trying to come home.
"Even if we go public and you end up coming home in a box, youve won because you stood up for what you believed," I said. "That may be true, Clen," he said. "But Ill be dead." There was a pregnant pause. At that moment, I knew we had to go public. Dying away from home was the last thing he wanted. I laid it out to him. His daughter, Oona, who had just been elected a member of Britains Parliament--only the second black woman ever to do so--was coming to the States in a matter of weeks.
A BBC film crew would be joining her to produce a documentary film on her civil rights roots. Why not seize the opportunity to hold a news conference and highlight her fathers plight? Uncle Pres was cautious, but gave me his nod of approval, promising to brief Oona on his case. I hung up with him, called my cousin Paul King, a photojournalist with our Jacksonville television station, and we began a feverish campaign to publicize his story.
The first place I called was the publisher of our hometown paper in Albany. I had worked there as a staff writer only two years before. No question, they were interested. I directed them to my mother, who could add emotion to the story, provide the pictures and fill in the blanks. I called the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, too. As it turned out, the paper had a senior columnist who had just left for England the same week. Even before Oona left England heading for the States, I coordinated a meeting with the newspapers Colin Campbell, Uncle Pres and her at their London flat.
But it was the Albany Herald that turned up with what would prove to be a key find in reporting Uncle Pres story. The reporter, Tim Wesselman, whom I knew well, located the trial and sentencing judge in the case. Despite being 96 years old, he told Tim he remembered the case. More incredible was that, all these years later, he viewed Preston King as a victim of discrimination.
"It never would have happened to him had he been white," he was quoted in the paper as saying. That statement alone added enormous credence to our cause, making Judge Bootle, for the long haul, an unlikely major player in our bid to get Uncle Pres home.
With the story now in print, it was easy to get the electronic media to follow. I dropped a line to each of the networks and even wrote Ed Bradley at "60 Minutes." Then, with the help of family in Atlanta, I went about scheduling a news conference by phone from Jacksonville. Oona was flying into Washington, D.C., then to Atlanta and then to Albany. With all the networks based in Atlanta, that stop seemed the most logical place to stage it.
First, I called the British Consul General, who agreed to host Oona and a small party for lunch at a downtown restaurant. As for the news conference, my hope was to have it on the campus of Clark Atlanta University because Atlanta University was where Uncle Pres and Oona attended summer programs. However, the universitys top brass appeared cool to the idea. Maybe they felt a little uncomfortable embracing a wanted felon, even if he was, in some sense, an alum.
So, we took our cause to the Auburn Avenue offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Women, where Evelyn Lowery welcomed Oona and the idea of a news conference with open arms. The day Oona arrived in Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution promoted Uncle Pres story above the fold, complete with Oonas picture. With that kind of coverage, I knew it also wouldnt hurt that this story of a black man being wronged would play well in Atlanta, where the majority of folks are black.
I was convinced we would have a sympathetic audience. In their eyes, I thought, Uncle Pres would no longer be seen as a wanted felon, but the father of a high government official who had been wronged by the Jim Crow South nearly 40 years before. Essentially, that was the story they all ran with coming out of Oonas news conference: CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and National Public Radio. That same day, I pitched the story to my news director at Jacksonvilles NBC affiliate.
Paul, my cousin and co-worker, quickly became my confidante during this campaign. We never expected our boss to do what he did. He took both of us off the streets that day, assigned a reporter to interview us, and ran with Uncle Pres story as the six oclock lead. Before the day was over we heard from NBC New York and CBS "60 Minutes." Our family was beginning to refer all media queries to me. Many of them wanted to know why a reporter from an NBC affiliate would pitch something to another network. My fellow colleagues and boss were wondering, too.
My answer was always the same: "This story isnt about network affiliation; its about family." And yet, on the home front, I was in hot water. My wife, Melinda, had been out of town on business for a few days and left the kids with me. We had spoken by phone about attending a black-tie affair together, a station function she loved attending each year. It was agreed that I would find a baby sitter and she would drive directly from the airport and meet me at the function. When I arrived she was dressed in an elegant black gown. She looked fabulous.
But I had dropped the ball, so preoccupied with Uncle Pres news coverage that I had forgotten to find a baby sitter. But because I was a part of the evening program, I still had to attend. There was no winning this one. So, when I walked into the function with my two sons wearing soiled after-school clothes and told her I had no sitter, she didnt say a word. She took the hands of my 4- and 8-year-olds and headed home for the night. I knew I was toast.
To this day, she hasnt forgotten that. Just four months into our campaign, Uncle Pres story went national. The Associated Press did a piece that ran coast to coast. Correspondents from both "60 Minutes" and NBCs "Today" show flew to London to meet Uncle Pres and aired pieces the week after Christmas. A Web site had been set up by some friends of Pres at Fisk. Requests for interviews continued to roll in. And people were talking. We were especially happy about our coverage with the "Tom Joyner Morning Show."
Although Uncle Pres was unavailable to do the interview, co-host Sybil Wilkes insisted that I step in. The interview proved key in putting black America on notice about the Preston King story and raising a groundswell of support. It was astounding on one level how the story had taken off in such a big way. On another level I wasnt really surprised. How often does anyone see a white Southern judge defend a black man he once convicted and sentenced? It just doesnt happen, which is why I felt we owed so much to Judge Bootle for his incredible courage.
It was around that time I decided to drive from Jacksonville to Macon, Ga., where the judge lived. I figured the family had never bothered to phone or thank him for helping us in our cause. I decided to surprise him, and left before dawn on a Sunday, arriving on his doorstep five hours later. It was around lunchtime, and the judge had just returned from church. His elderly wife answered the door and moments later he joined her there, a box of Churchs fried chicken in hand.
"May I help you?" he asked. "I just wanted to say thank you, Judge Bootle." "Who are you?" he asked. "Im Clennon King, attorney C.B. Kings son, Preston Kings nephew. And on behalf of the family, I wanted to just say thank you for what youve done for Uncle Pres." "Oh my God. Come on in," he said. "Honey, let the man in."
The judge, Mrs. Bootle and I talked for the next two hours. He was a gracious man, insisting I join them for lunch in their dining room overlooking a garden. I didnt quite expect this response, considering it was an unannounced visit. We dined on chicken thighs and legs, fried okra, corn on the cob, biscuits and drank Coca-Cola. He made no secret of the fact that he was curious about the familys reaction to his support. I was equally curious about what possessed him to lend his support. But more important, I wanted to shore up his backing for the long haul.
We still had to convince the U.S. Justice Department and the White House that Uncle Preston was worthy of a pardon. Without Judge Bootle, the family and Uncle Pres legal team knew a pardon would be impossible. In truth, there was one other thing I really wanted from the judge. I wanted him to pen a letter to President Bill Clinton defending Uncle Pres, the way he already had supported him in the media. He was gracious in his refusal. "I think what Ive said is enough," he said. "If yall want to use what Ive said to the papers and in the TV reports to help get him home, then fine. But I think Ive said enough."
I thanked him anyhow for considering it. Before I left, though, Judge Bootle told me a story that would prove critical down the road. I told him the family particularly enjoyed his defense of Uncle Preston in the Macon Telegraph. He laughed and told me he had originally refused to do the interview. But he said the reporter was persistent. At the urging of his parents, who were apparently Macon locals, the reporter called the Hon. Duross Fitzpatrick, the chief judge of the federal district and Bootles boss. The reporter appealed to him for help. Days later, Bootle did the interview.
Once again, I thanked Judge and Mrs. Bootle and headed home. Eight months later, when Uncle Pres legal team was making application for a presidential pardon, Judge Bootles story proved critical to the process. They needed a letter from the judge to the president supporting the bid for the pardon. No one was sure how to get it. At first, I thought about driving back to Macon, and then abandoned the idea. It was too much of a long shot. He had already said no.
What was to be gained? Then, I decided to call him. His response was gracious as always, but he refused. Then I remembered the strategy of the Macon Telegraph reporter. I had interviewed Judge Fitzpatrick for a variety of stories during my days at the Albany Herald. I called him and, to my surprise, he said he remembered me. Then I told him why I was calling, thanking him on behalf of the family for persuading Judge Bootle to do the Macon Telegraph article.
Clearly, he was flattered by the call, telling me it was the right thing to do. Then I popped the question, asking him for help in getting Judge Bootle to write to President Clinton. I reminded him that the family was only interested in Judge Bootle putting on paper what he had already said in the media. Judge Fitzpatricks response was measured. Noting Judge Bootles mind was a hard thing to change, Fitzpatrick said he would do what he could.
Then, before hanging up, he asked that I e-mail him the articles in which Judge Bootle was quoted. A week later, he e-mailed me saying he had a copy of a letter Judge Bootle had written to the president. I was shocked, as was everyone. No one thought Judge Bootle would come through, but he did.
It was our hope the letter would generate another wave of stories. Christmas is generally the time that presidents issue pardons. We were hoping a media blitz might help our cause. I seized the opportunity, joining other family members in a series of prayer vigils. Our message to the president was to bring Uncle Preston home for the holidays. I flew to Washington to spearhead the vigil in Lafayette Park opposite the White House.
My cousin, Brenda Webb in Atlanta, staged one in front of the federal courthouse there, and my older brother, Chevene King, staged one in Albany. The vigil in Washington was almost a bust. It rained, and news coverage was limited. NBC News, its local affiliate, and the Associated Press were the only ones who showed up. The other concern was attendance.
Maybe 10 people came, including my mother; my sister, Peg; my uncle, Paul King from Albany; the president of Fisk University, John Smith; some Fisk alumni; and two high school classmates, Sophia Green Robinson and Chris Hurd, who had helped organize the event. I went home very depressed. But a week later, we got the news coverage we were looking for.
Noting Judge Bootles letter, CNN, NBC and CBS each ran a story. Bryant Gumbel even did a live interview with Uncle Pres via satellite. And even though Uncle Pres was not among the presidents Christmas pardons, I couldnt help but feel the vigils gave our campaign a needed boost. But we were still crushed that Uncle Pres was away from home yet another Christmas.
Almost 18 months after we began the renewed campaign, we got word that Uncle Preston had been pardoned. His oldest brother, Clennon, had died, and it appeared the Clinton White House didnt want it to be said that Uncle Pres missed another family funeral on their watch. Uncle Pres also made it plain that he planned on coming home in leg irons if it came to that. But it never got that far. He came home to a heros welcome and a crush of media at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, including the New York Times, People Magazine and the television networks.
Twelve years had passed since I had seen him. Giving me a bear hug in front of the cameras, he whispered, "Great job, soldier." Eyes welled. Uncle Pres was home at long last. EPILOG Uncle Pres spent the next 45 minutes there at the airport, fielding questions from the local and national media. The questions ran the gamut. Everything from how have race relations changed in his time away to his impressions of his home state since touching down. "I am a veritable Rip Van Winkle," he said. "Ive been asleep for well nigh 40 years and wake up 40 years later."
Yes, there were changes, he said. But what they were it was too soon to say. After all, he had only just stepped off the plane. He pulled away from the cargo terminal building in a stretch limousine headed for the 185-mile trip to Albany. Three hours later, a crush of media and their satellite trucks waited for him at my mothers home.
Someone had already phoned in a death threat on his life at the local NAACP chapter office and reporters wanted to know his thoughts. In his own cool way, he let them know he wasnt concerned. Certainly, the question about race relations had been answered with this. Inside my mothers house, the place was buzzing with family and well-wishers.
After a sit-down interview with NBC News, Uncle Pres asked a favor of me before he turned in for the night. He had no way of knowing there would be so much media intrigue about him or his return. What he wanted most was to visit the graves of his parents without reporters in tow. So at 5 a.m., I roused him and drove him to the family plot at Riverside Cemetery where his mother, father, and two brothers were buried. In 39 years, he had missed five funerals of people near and dear to him. I stayed at the wheel, kicking on the high-beams so that he could find each headstone. He was making his peace.
For a split second, I thought Uncle Pres might want a shoulder to lean on. But his body language made clear he wanted this time and space alone. I sat quietly in the car until he returned. There were no tears, just composure. We spent the next two hours between paying respects and satisfying curiosity. He visited the grave of his brother, Slater, at another cemetery. Then it was on to the funeral parlor to see his oldest brother, Clennon, who he would bury later that day.
We drove through Albanys dark streets, to help him catch up on lost time. By the white clapboard house he grew up in at 629 Lincoln Ave. By the home of his older sister, Lucille, who was suffering from Alzheimers in an Atlanta nursing home. By his fathers grocery store that was now headquarters of the local NAACP chapter. And there was his mothers dress shop next to it, now owned and operated by his sister-in-law, Amaya. These were places he remembered. He was like a kid in a candy shop, taking it all in. There were so many questions, so much to absorb.
Many places were unrecognizable to him. A huge highway ran through a neighborhood where Granddaddy had once owned a block of shotgun houses. Another store his father owned at the end of the block was closed and leveled after desegregation made it easy for blacks to spend money outside their community. The end of segregation came at a high price, he told me. Indeed it did.
As we drove through downtown, he remembered almost nothing of it. These were the same streets where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and hundreds of demonstrators marched to challenge legal segregation just six months after he fled to England.
The same downtown where my father was struck over the head with a billy club by the local sheriff as he tried to see a client in jail. Uncle Pres was not here in downtown, then. But his memory was jarred as we drove by the courthouse where he was tried and convicted. This place came back to him like a bad memory. I made the mistake of asking whether he recognized it. "Who could forget it, Clen?" he said before falling silent. He stared into the dark street as we drove by it.
His spirit only lifted two blocks later as we drove by a new federal courthouse that was under construction that would bear the name of his brother, my father. It would be called the C.B. King Federal Courthouse. What a difference 40 years makes. We found ourselves at a McDonalds before long. He said he wanted some tea. I told him to forget it. The fact is, it wasnt that Uncle Pres was hungry. He really just wanted to spend the American money in his pocket that he hadnt been able to in 40 years. The other thing was that he was curious how the American workplace had changed.
He was surprised to find a young African-American woman taking his money and whites in the kitchen. It was certainly not the Albany he had left in 1961. His first day in Albany flew by fast. Interviews with the New York Times and CBS News. The funeral of his brother Clennon. A quick visit to the home of a childhood schoolmate. And a family portrait in the backyard. Day Two was just as busy. Interviews with People Magazine on the banks of the Flint River.
A photo-op at Jimmies, a popular hotdog stand where he had bought hotdogs as a child. In the 24 hours he had been here, the media played ball, giving him time to bury his brother. But now they wanted access and a story. They had been calling me all morning long on my cell phone. Thats when I knew it was time to head to Macon to have Uncle Pres thank Judge Bootle face to face.
I phoned Bootles housekeeper, Mary Bell, that morning, warning her to expect the media. She had no idea. By the time we arrived, reporters, producers, sound men, and photographers had taken over the judges driveway. "Perhaps the judge can provide me a cup of tea," Uncle Pres quipped as he made his way to the front door. The reporters ate it up. Then Judge Bootle answered his door. "Welcome home, Mr. King," he announced with his Southern drawl.
At 96, it was understandable how the judge loved the media attention. But for Uncle Pres, it was clearly dizzying. He was a man who had lived for decades as an academic in relative obscurity and was now under the glare of the medias white lights. This was part of the price of coming home. Right or wrong, these reporters had played no small role in delivering him. In fact, aside from the Almighty Himself, these modern-day scribes were the only ones I knew who could have helped make it happen.
Clennon King (A&S 83) is a journalist in Jacksonville, Fla. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 email@example.com