King, Colbert I.

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Colbert I. King



Colbert I. King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and editorialist for the Washington Post, one of the nation's most influential newspapers. A Washington native, King spent several decades in public service and banking before joining the Post's editorial board in 1990. His eloquence on behalf of the poor and his hard-hitting, often indignant exposés of government mismanagement "speak to people in power," in the words of the Pulitzer committee, "with ferocity and wisdom."

The son of Isaiah King III and Amelia Colbert King, Colbert Isaiah "Colby" King was born on September 20, 1939, in Washington, DC. Raised in a tight-knit neighborhood in the Foggy Bottom section of the capital, King attended segregated local schools before entering nearby Howard University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in government in 1961. He then entered the army, which granted him, on the basis of his participation in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, the rank of lieutenant. After two years as a staff officer in the Adjutant General's Corps, he left the military and joined the U.S. State Department, serving from 1964 to 1970 at posts in Washington and abroad. Most of his work there involved doing background investigations of applicants seeking to enter the foreign service. The skills he acquired as an investigator would serve him well more than twenty years later, when he began his newspaper career.

After leaving the State Department in 1970, King took the first in a series of public- and private-sector jobs that would carry him steadily up the ladder of power and influence in Washington. He first served a year on a fellowship at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where he worked with Undersecretary (and noted civil rights pioneer) James Farmer on a plan to raise national awareness of sickle-cell anemia, a disease predominately affecting African Americans. Next, after a year as the director of VISTA, a government-run public service organization, King joined the staff of a U.S. Senate Committee investigating ways to transfer control of the city of Washington's affairs from the federal government to local residents. Over the four years he served on the committee's staff, he played a major role in drawing up the so-called "Washington Home Rule" legislation that eventually accomplished that transfer of power. He also served as a close aide to U.S. Senator Charles Mathias Jr. of Maryland and as director of government relations for the Potomac Electric Power Company.

In late 1976 the incoming administration of newly elected President Jimmy Carter selected him to be deputy assistant secretary of legislative affairs in the Treasury Department, a post he held from 1977 to 1979. Carter then appointed him to a new position as U.S. executive director of the World Bank, where he worked to increase investment in the developing world. King left that post in 1980 to become vice president for the Middle East and Africa at Riggs National Bank, one of Washington's leading financial institutions. One of King's major interests in Riggs, where he would remain until joining the Post in 1990, was in keeping the level of debt owed by developing nations in his region to a manageable level. Economic studies have repeatedly shown that high levels of foreign debt are a major factor in the persistence of poverty around the world, and King's work at Riggs can be seen in part as an expression of his concern for the poor, a concern that would later permeate many of his newspaper columns.

Unlike most newspaper columnists, King was not trained as a journalist. His decades of experience as a civil servant and international banker, however, combined with an insider's awareness of the mechanics of power in Washington, made him an ideal choice for the Post's editorial board. According to Kendra Hamilton in the journal Black Issues in Higher Education, Meg Greenfield, longtime editor of the Post's editorial page and a journalist renowned for her acumen, "worked for years to get King to join the editorial board." In the summer of 1990, he agreed. "I started on August 1, 1990—the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait," King told Hamilton. "The Marion Barry [former mayor of Washington, indicted while in office on drug charges] trial was taking place at the same time. So I'm writing editorials on all of that…. It was definitely a trial by fire, and it's never really slowed down." In 1995 King began writing a weekly column in addition to editorials, and five years later was promoted to deputy editor of the editorial page. Though he would relinquish that post in 2007, his columns and editorials for the Post continued. He has also served frequently as a television and radio commentator on a variety of public-affairs programs.

It is his weekly column, however, for which King is best known, and which brought him the 2003 Pulitzer for outstanding newspaper commentary. As Fred Hiatt, Greenfield's successor as editorial page director, told Sasha Abramsky in Editor & Publisher on the occasion of King's award, "He writes about people who would otherwise get ignored, people who don't have much of a voice in the city. He goes back and tells their story and holds officials accountable. He shines a pretty powerful spotlight." King's focus is a broad one, and he switches frequently, sometimes within a single column, between local, national, and international affairs. Visible in nearly every piece, however, is a concern for those made victim by crime, poverty, war, or misguided government policy. Among the columns singled out by the Pulitzer committee, for example, were a piece on the Saudi Arabian government's repressive treatment of women and another on the 2002 double murder of an eighteen-month-old boy and an eighty-year-old woman in northwest Washington. In 2006 he ran a long series of columns sharply critical of Washington's fire and EMS departments for their treatment of an assault victim (New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum, who later died of his injuries). Joe Strupp in Editor & Publisher's said of King's persistence in the Rosenbaum case: "King makes a habit of returning to the same stories again and again with new information or just continued pressuring of powers that be." That determination, combined with an obvious sense of compassion and an insider's knowledge of politics, has made him one of journalism's most respected voices.

At a Glance …

Born Colbert Isaiah King on September 20, 1939, in Washington, DC; son of Isaiah King III and Amelia Colbert King; married Gwendolyn Stewart, July 3, 1961; children: Robert, Stephen, Allison. Military service: U.S. Army Adjutant General's Corps, staff officer, 1961-63. Education: Howard University, BA, government, 1961; graduate studies.

Career: U.S. State Department, investigative officer and attaché, 1964-70; U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, special assistant/graduate fellow, 1970-71; VISTA, director, 1971-72; U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, minority staff director, 1972-76; Office of U.S. Senator Charles Mathias Jr., aide, 1974-76(?); Potomac Electric Power Company, director of government relations, 1975-77; U.S. Treasury, deputy assistant secretary of legislative affairs, 1977-79; World Bank, U.S. executive director, 1979-80; Riggs National Bank, vice president for the Middle East and Africa, 1980-90; Washington Post, member of editorial board, 1990—, weekly columnist, 1995—, deputy editor of editorial page, 2000-07.

Memberships: Kappa Alpha Psi.

Awards: Distinguished Service Award, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, 1980; Distinguished Graduate Award in Business, Howard University, 1987; finalist for Best Newspaper Writing Award, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1999; Pulitzer Prize for commentary, 2003.

Addresses: Office—Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.



Black Issues in Higher Education, July 31, 2003, p. 28.

Editor & Publisher, April 14, 2003, p. 21; June 19, 2006.

Washington Post, May 31, 2008, p. A13; June 7, 2008, p. A15.


"Colbert I. King," The Pulitzer Prize Winners: 2003, (accessed June 13, 2008).

"Colbert I. King," Washington Post, (accessed June 14, 2008).

"Colbert King Biography," The History Makers, (accessed June 14, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler