Expatriate Black Scholar Seeks Amnesty for Fleeing Draft
In the annals of the civil rights movement, Preston King isn’t even a footnote. But to his family, he is an unfinished chapter.
In 1958, when young men were still required to register for military service, the local draft board refused to extend King’s deferment to pursue his education. He had been granted time to get a master’s degree at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science. But now, ready to pursue a doctorate, he was told to report for induction.
King, who is black, refused, accusing the all-white board of racism.
His proof? The board secretary’s insistence on addressing him by his first name in correspondence--and a couple of centuries of history.
“I have received government orders with which I cannot in principle comply due to an immediately conspicuous defect in form,” he wrote in 1959 to the Selective Service’s state headquarters. “And in the end I should rather sit in prison, or do whatever else, than submit--an act which I could never square with my conscience--to this reflection of a stupid and inane racialism in government.”
In 1961, King was convicted of failing to report and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
The young man who had said he hoped to become a U.S. diplomat instead began a life outside the United States as a fugitive. He fled the country and, for the better part of four decades, has not dared return--even for the funerals of his parents and brother.
Today the ambitious youth from this small south Georgia town is a renowned political philosopher and author in England, where his daughter, Oona King, is a member of parliament.
Last year she showed up in Georgia with a BBC television crew and instantly put her father’s long-dormant case back on the front burner--and Albany’s segregated past on trial.
The file on King’s trial had long ago been packed away, the hopeful 20-year-old face on his passport photo stamped “CANCELED.” But now the U.S. Department of Justice has ordered a copy to review.
Oona King and her American relatives are using her clout to push for a presidential amnesty. And so today’s justice system has been called upon to decide whether King was a legitimate protester rejecting generations of humiliating denigration or a spoiled academic who played the race card.
“This is kind of a cosmic joke,” says King, now a bearded scholar with an Australian passport and an accent more British than American.
A Man Who Was Taught to Soar
Albany is a progressive university city in the pecan- and peach-growing areas about 145 miles south of Atlanta. Once dominated by beef packing plants and cotton mills, the local economy is now driven by the likes of Procter & Gamble, Merck and Miller Brewing. Almost half the city’s 76,000 residents are black, and blacks hold four of the six city commission seats.
It is a world away from the segregated Albany of King’s childhood.
His father, Clennon W. King, a respected entrepreneur in the black community, would park his modest Chevrolet two blocks away when collecting rents from white tenants, so as not to appear too “uppity.” Carol King, King’s sister-in-law, remembers the humiliation of having to cover her hair with tissue paper before trying on hats at the local department store.
King’s brother, Clennon Jr., applied for a place in the all-white University of Mississippi; instead of being considered, he was certified insane. When another brother, Paul, requested a college deferment in the early 1950s, the draft board informed him he didn’t need to go to school.
Today, in his office at Albany State University, where he is a professor of English and modern languages, 67-year-old Paul King says, “It was a matter of the way people thought of blacks, that they were supposed to be more subservient and that they were supposed to think about agriculture or domestic work--things of that sort.”
But the seven King boys were brought up to think differently.
Their father, who helped found the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and their mother, Margaret, a graduate of Tuskegee and Fisk universities, always encouraged them to go to college.
“So many people had been conditioned to think that they were less than others,” Paul King says. “And Preston was a person who had been taught to soar, to do his best.”
Another thing their father stressed was decorum and respect. People, including black people, were to be addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
A World Traveler Exiled From Home
Preston King, the youngest child, was at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., when he reported for the draft and received his first deferment. It was 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated the public schools.
When Jacqueline Terry, secretary of Local Board No. 48 in Albany, wrote to him in November to inform him of reporting procedures, she began the letter, “Dear Sir.”
Two years later, when King applied for permission to study abroad, he appeared in person. When Terry saw that he was black, he contends, she turned her back on him and was cool.
From then on, letters from the board were addressed, “Dear Preston.”
While King says that rankled him, he did not make an issue of it until 1958, when his deferment was up.
He was traveling in Europe when the board notified him his deferment had expired. When he failed to respond to a second letter, Terry sent him an induction notice.
With a scholarship in hand to pursue a doctorate and the offer of a teaching position, King sent two quick letters in September 1958, apologizing for his tardy response and asking for more time. The board refused to reopen his case and ordered him back to Albany.
“In your correspondence with me, conducted in the name of the Board, you have adopted a style and tone which I consider quite frankly harsh and very nearly bullying,” he wrote in October. “You have, too, been studiedly discourteous, a fact illustrated by your practice of addressing me, a person you do not know, and in official correspondence, by my Christian name, and without a title.”
King informed the board that “any such correspondence received by me shall simply be ignored, regardless of personal consequences.”
Terry says the board was more than fair with King, granting him a two-year deferment when one year was the standard. As for her manner of addressing him, she says her orders were to address all candidates by their first names, regardless of race.
“I was professional,” says Terry, the only surviving member of that draft board.
King says he expected the board would be reprimanded. But when a colonel in Atlanta reviewed the case and ruled there was no discrimination, King dismissed it as merely rubber-stamping.
When King came home in 1960 to lecture and visit his family, he was arrested.
During his three-day trial in U.S. District Court at Albany, King’s defense attorneys, including his brother C.B., sought to show that he did not willfully shirk his responsibility. They also tried to prove discrimination.
But King offered no evidence that white candidates were addressed differently from blacks. There was no testimony about any white student being granted a deferment in similar circumstances.
King was released pending appeal but instead jumped his $2,500 bond and returned to England--leaving behind a system that had rejected what he saw as an offer to redeem itself.
“There is nothing legitimate about what was done in my case,” he says from his office at Lancaster University, where he is a professor of political science. “I was doing them a favor, and they turned it down.”
So while he has taught and lectured in Africa, Europe, Australia and even as close as Canada, King may not appear at the college in his hometown.
Discrimination as a Reflection of the Times
Up the road in Macon, the gleaming white-marble courthouse where King’s file now resides was named last year in honor of William A. Bootle, the judge who presided over King’s case. At 96, Bootle’s mind is still sharp, and he stands by the verdict and sentence.
“He was a draft dodger,” the white-haired jurist says in a patrician Georgia drawl. “He had to be convicted.”
But while Bootle now concedes that the board might have been discriminatory in its correspondence with King, he says it merely reflected the times.
“You see, that was a part of our culture and custom, and this draft board was made up of white people in Albany, Ga.,” he says. “And the truth is that we white people did not call black people ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ in those days. Do you understand that? We just didn’t do it. And we didn’t shake hands with them. We just didn’t do it.”
Carol King says Bootle’s comments speak volumes.
“That’s the whole issue: ‘At that time,”’ says the retired teacher and school administrator. “Would they prosecute a runaway slave if they found him at this time? . . . He’s still suffering the consequences, and they wish he would die and blow away. Because, quite frankly, he’s an embarrassment to this country.”
Oona King says she is heartened by her discussions with U.S. officials. “It’s astonishing that we have the civil rights movement, and 40 years down the line we still have people who are still suffering the consequences,” she says.