Clennon Washington King Jr., the first African American to attempt to attend the University of Mississippi and the first black man to run for president of the United States, spent five decades fighting for civil rights as a controversial and eccentric professor, minister, and political candidate. King’s behavior ranged from the audacious to the downright bizarre. His independence, his frequent support of segregation, his cooperation with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, and his criticism of groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) earned King as many enemies in the African American community as in the white power structure.
Born 18 July 1920 in Albany, Georgia, King grew up the oldest of seven children in a middle-class family. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee Institute and a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University before teaching at various black colleges during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1957, as a history professor at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), King assailed NAACP members as the “real Uncle Toms” for allegedly attempting to soothe their inferiority complexes through integration and disrupting race relations between whites and “ordinary” blacks. In response, a group of Alcorn students hanged King in effigy, and more than six hundred students boycotted his classes. At the end of the 1958 school year, the college let King’s contract lapse.
In the summer of 1958 King attempted to enter the graduate program in history at the University of Mississippi. No African American had ever applied to the university, and the white power structure struck back quickly and devastatingly. When King arrived in Oxford to register, Gov. J. P. Coleman, members of the state highway patrol, and several plainclothes officers greeted him. After forcibly removing King from the registration area, state authorities carried him to jail. Two physicians then declared King insane, and he spent nearly two weeks in a state asylum before his younger brother, civil rights lawyer C. B. King, secured his release.
In 1960 King became the first black man to run for president. Running on the Independent Afro-American Party ticket, King won 1,485 votes in Alabama and finished eleventh nationally in a twelve-candidate field. During the 1970s he waged unsuccessful gubernatorial, state legislative, and local commission campaigns in Georgia. King made national news during the 1976 presidential campaign by attempting to desegregate Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter’s whites-only Plains Baptist Church. King moved to Miami in 1979 and established 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. King ran in local elections on the Party of God ticket into the 1990s, behaving increasingly bizarrely: his 1993 campaign used intentionally outlandish profanity, while in 1996 he wore lipstick and sweatpants to campaign events. King died of prostate cancer on 12 February 2000.
- James H. Barrett, Integration at Ole Miss (1965)
- Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2009)
- Miami New Times (25 July 1996)
- New York Press (8 March 2000)
- Time (18 March 1957)