A native of Vicksburg, Rev. Edwin King Jr. became one of the key white leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Born on 20 September 1936, King began questioning the morality of segregation at an early age and was involved in Methodist Church youth activities that promoted integration. After a 1953 tornado ravaged Vicksburg, King realized the extent of the unequal infrastructure of black and white neighborhoods and the extreme poverty of many black residents.
In 1954 he enrolled at Millsaps College in Jackson and became active in interracial student gatherings. Graduating in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, King felt called to the ministry and entered Boston University. In addition to absorbing the teachings of theologians who championed racial equality, King continued to volunteer for civil rights causes. On a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, during which he facilitated communication between activists and churches, police twice arrested King for eating with black colleagues. With newspapers in Mississippi trumpeting his arrests, King’s parents faced accusations that their son was a communist and felt compelled to move out of the state.
The turmoil surrounding James Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi convinced King and his wife, Jeannette, that Mississippi needed homegrown activists to help steer the state toward peaceful change. After completing two master’s degrees at Boston University, King accepted a position as chaplain of Tougaloo College, a predominantly black college in North Jackson. The Kings arrived at Tougaloo in January 1963, and Ed King became involved in the growing Jackson freedom movement, joining with Medgar Evers and John Salter, a professor at Tougaloo, to organize a boycott of downtown businesses. As talks with Mayor Allen Thompson reached an impasse, King organized a series of interracial meetings that included the heads of all of Mississippi’s major religious groups. He was convinced that dialogue among church leaders was key to avoiding massive demonstrations and potential violence. When the white ministers declined to join with black colleagues in a joint statement of solidarity, picketing and sit-in demonstrations commenced. Over ten days in late May and early June 1963 Jackson police arrested six hundred people, mostly black high school and college students. King personally led and participated in many of the acts of civil disobedience. During the first day, he directed students during a two-hour sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. On 29 May police arrested King and others for trespassing when they attempted a kneel-in on the steps of the Federal Building on Capitol Street. The next day, King’s actions convinced his fellow Methodist ministers to discontinue his status with the conference, effectively expelling him from his home church.
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ended demonstrations in the face of an injunction that allowed police to arrest anyone engaging in civil disobedience, King and Evers decided to try to visit white churches. Believing that the sight of blacks being turned away from churches would stir the consciences of white Christians, they initiated a campaign in which students and later out-of-state ministers attempted to attend various white churches in Jackson. While most churches refused to allow the students to enter, the visits sparked debates about the morality of segregation within churches, and after police began arresting visitors in October 1963, some denominations, particularly Methodists, began to reevaluate their racial policies.
In addition to helping set up freedom schools and organize voter registration drives, King served a crucial role in encouraging other activists in their daily struggle to maintain hope and strength. King also stood at the forefront of several challenges to the state’s political structure. Protesting the lack of enforcement of voting rights and the exclusion of blacks from the Mississippi Democratic Party, King served as Aaron Henry’s running mate in 1963’s Freedom Vote: the ticket received eighty-three thousand votes. The next year, King was one of the delegates from the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1964 and 1965 King spoke to church audiences throughout the Midwest, helping to convince them of the need to push their congressional leaders to adopt new civil and voting rights legislation. In 1966 King ran as the Freedom Democratic nominee for US Congress against incumbent John Bell Williams in Mississippi’s 3rd District, receiving 22 percent of the overall vote.
King left Tougaloo in 1967 to work for the Delta Ministry, an ecumenical development program that targeted the state’s poorest communities. He remained active in various political causes in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1974 King has taught sociology at the Medical Center of the University of Mississippi in Jackson and served as an adjunct professor at Millsaps College and the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In 2014 he and Trent Brown published Ed King’s Mississippi: Behind the Scenes of Freedom Summer. He remains an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and continues to speak throughout the world about the civil rights movement.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Ed King, in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan Erenrich (1999)
- Ed King, in Mississippi Writers: Reflections on Childhood and Youth, vol. 2, ed. Dorothy Abbott (1986)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- John R. Salter Jr., Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979)