Clennon W. King Jr. was an extraordinary African-American activist who, in 1958, was confined to a mental institution for attempting to enroll in summer classes at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. His story sheds light on the deep-seated racism and political abuse of psychiatry that plagued the United States during the civil rights movement
Born on July 18, 1920, Clennon W. King Jr. came from a family deeply involved in civil rights activism. His father, Clennon Washington King Sr., was a prominent civil rights activist and had served as the chauffeur for Booker T. Washington. Growing up in this environment, Clennon Jr. was instilled with a strong sense of justice and equality.
A highly accomplished individual, Clennon Jr. began his educational journey at a young age. He entered college at 16 and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts from Tuskegee Institute, followed by a master’s degree in history from Case Western Reserve University. He then embarked on a career in teaching, holding positions at various Southern colleges.
In 1957, King secured a job as a history professor at Alcorn A&M College, an all-black institution in western Mississippi. Motivated by his belief in equal education opportunities, he decided to challenge the racial segregation of universities in the region. In 1958, he attempted to enroll in summer graduate courses at the University of Mississippi, a historically all-white institution.
As King waited in line to register, school officials singled him out and escorted him to the administration building where the registrar informed him that his application would take an extended period to process, effectively preventing him from enrolling. When King requested to return to the registration line, he was forcibly removed from the building by state police, placed in a waiting station wagon, and taken to jail. From there, he was swiftly transferred to a mental institution
Fortunately, King’s younger brother, C.B. King, a prominent lawyer and civil rights activist, intervened, and after nearly two weeks, he successfully secured his release from the mental institution.
After his release, 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“.
King’s ordeal exposed the extent to which individuals in positions of power went during that era to systematically oppress African-Americans and deprive them of their fundamental rights.
Undeterred by his traumatic experience, King continued his activism in various ways. In 1960, he ran for president as a candidate of the Independent Afro-American Party, making him the first African-American man to run for the office of President of the United States. He also made attempts to run for governor and various legislative positions in Georgia.
Throughout his life, Clennon W. King Jr. remained steadfast in his fight for civil rights. In 1976, while serving as the pastor of the Divine Mission Church in Albany, he attempted to integrate the all-white Baptist church attended by Jimmy Carter, who was then a presidential candidate. Although the local pastor was willing to admit him, the church’s deacons, upholding a discriminatory regulation from 1965, closed the church to services and recommended the dismissal of the pastor. Eventually, the pastor resigned from his position.
Later in his life, King founded the All Faith Church of the Divine Mission in Miami, Florida, where he continued his activism as the self-proclaimed “Reverend Rabbi” and called himself “His Divine Blackness.”
Tragically, Clennon King Jr. succumbed to prostate cancer in 2000 at the age of 79, leaving a lasting impact on the fight for equality and justice.