King, Preston 1936–
Preston King 1936–
In 1956 the United States was in the midst of the cold war, and, even though there was no threat of war, all young men at the age of 18 were required to register for the draft. Preston King, who was 20 years old at the time, had just graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history from Fisk University in Tennessee. He had requested and been granted a student deferment while he was attending Fisk. When he went to apply for a deferment to attend the London School of Economics for graduate school, he was advised to switch his draft board from Nashville, Tennessee to Albany, Georgia, his home town. He did so, and soon received a letter granting him a routine two year student deferment.
On his next trip home to Albany before he left for London, King stopped in to the draft board office to thank them for the deferment and to make sure that all his paperwork was in order. This simple act was to have a major impact on the course of his future. The same office staff who had written to him granting his student deferment apparently realized for the first time that day that Preston King, the young graduate with the scholarship to study at the prestigious London School of Economics, was an African American.
It is very likely that King’s entire family was known to the draft board. Albany, a small city in southwest Georgia, was the kind of town where people knew each other. Preston King’s father, Clennon King, was a small businessman in Albany who had started the first black-owned restaurant in Georgia and who was head of the Albany chapter of the NAACP. As a young man, Clennon King had attended Tuskegee Institute, working his way through school as a coachman for Booker T. Washington. King’s mother, Maggie King, who had also attended Tuskegee, was a teacher. Preston King was the youngest of seven sons, and all of his older brothers had gone to college and were working in various professions.
King went to London and began his studies, but there was a change in the tenor of the letters he received from the draft board. Before his visit to the Albany draft board in person, letters to him had come addressed to “Mr. Preston King” and had used the salutation “Dear Sir” or “Dear Mr. King.” Now, on the correspondence he was receiving, the address was simply “Preston King,” and the salutation of the letter was “Dear Preston.” In 1958, having been accepted for the doctoral program at the London School of Economics,
Born on March 3, 1936, in Albany, Georgia; son of Clennon and Margaret King; married Murreil Hazel Stern (divorced); married Raewyn; children: Oona and Slater (from first marriage), Akasi Peter, (from second marriage). Education: Fisk University, 1956; London School of Economics, Ph.D., 1966; postgraduate study at University of Vienna, University of Strasbourg, and University of Paris.
Career: Educator. Taught in Cameroon, Fiji, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Uganda; held chairs in Nairobi, Kenya and Sydney, Australia; visiting appointments at the London School of Economics, McGill University in Canada, and Bellagio, Italy; University of Lancaster, Department of Politics and International Relations, chair, 1986-; author of 15 books, including:The History of Ideas, 1983;An African Winter, 1986; and Hobbes: Critical Assessments, 1993; editor, The Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.
Addresses: Lancaster University, Department of Politics and International Relations, Lancaster, United Kingdom, LA1 4YF.
King wrote to the Albany draft board documenting his continuing studies and asking for another deferment. Although student deferments were routine at the time and he had clearly met the criteria for a deferment, his request was denied. Instead, he received a letter, again addressing him as “Preston,” ordering him to report for a physical exam prior to induction.
In fact, this was not the only run-in that the King family had with southern racism that year. His oldest brother Clennon Junior had applied to the University of Mississippi for graduate school in 1958, making him the first African-American to apply to the University of Mississippi. The state had him declared insane, arguing that any Black person who applied to that school had to be insane, and he was committed involuntarily to a state asylum. It took legal intervention to get him released.
King wrote back to the draft board and said that he would report for a physical, but only if the board would correct the letter it had sent and use the same terms of address that it had used when it had thought that he was white. As quoted in the Boston Globe, in his letter to the Albany Draft Board in 1958 King wrote, “I have received government orders with which I cannot in principle comply, due to an immediately conspicuous defect in form. 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.”
King did not receive a revised letter. Instead, he received a notice that he was being referred for prosecution on four counts of draft evasion. The next time that he came home to visit his family in 1961, federal marshals came to his house at 5 a.m. and arrested him. The case went to trial the following spring. Kings’s older brother, C.B., a civil rights attorney, defended him, arguing that the denial of a student deferment and the change in the form of address used by the draft board constituted racist and unequal treatment. An all-white jury found King guilty of draft evasion and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. Rather than go to prison or face a lengthy and expensive appeals process, King followed his father’s advice, jumped bail, and returned to London to continue his studies. He knew that this action would effectively exile him from the United States, for, if he ever returned, he would be subject to imprisonment.
By 1966, King had completed his doctoral studies and had been awarded a Ph.D. in Political Science from the London School of Economics. He accepted a teaching position at the University of Sheffield. He had also met and married a British citizen, Murreil Hazel Stern. Their first child, Oona, was born in 1967. That same year, King received word that his older brother, Slater, had been killed in an automobile accident. King was unable to attend the funeral. When his second child, a son, was born two years later, he was named Slater, in honor of his brother.
King’s professional career took him to teaching positions around the world. He taught in Cameroon, Fiji, Tanzania, and New zealand. He held chairs in Nairobi and Sydney, and had visiting appointments at McGill University in Canada and Bellagio, Italy. His areas of specialization were comparative politics, political philosophy, and African international relations. He also wrote extensively, publishing books on federalism, the history of ideas, and famine in Africa, and editing collections of essays on political philosophy.
During this time, King worked hard to remain connected with his family in Georgia. King sent his children and his wife to visit his family in Albany, while he stayed at home. Members of his family visited him abroad. Several times the family arranged reunions in the Bahamas, or in Africa. Even after he and his wife divorced, he continued to send the children to Albany for extended visits. But some things were impossible. When his father died in 1978, he was unable to attend the funeral. When his mother died, he sent his daughter Oona, now a young woman, to stand in his place. When two other of his brothers, Allen and C.B., died, he sent a composition to be read at their funerals.
During the years of his exile, many events shaped the history of the United States. In the 1960s, the United States’ presence in Vietnam was widely criticized by its citizens and many young men eligible for the draft refused to serve. Those protesters who had left the country to avoid the draft for Vietnam were pardoned by President Carter in 1977. However, the blanket pardon for draft evasion did not apply to King, because he was charged not just with draft evasion but also with avoiding federal prosecution.
Although his supporters, had asked Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush to pardon King, they had no success. By 1986, King had accepted a position as chair of political philosophy at Lancaster University and had settled in northeastern England. During this period, he met and married his second wife, Raewyn, and had a third child, a son named Akasi Peter. Then, in the late 1990s the momentum for a pardon for him took on new life, fueled by the next generation of the King family. One of King’s nephews, Clennon King, was now a journalist. King’s daughter, Oona, had gone into politics, and in 1997, had been elected to the House of Parliament, only the second Black woman ever to be elected to British Parliament. Oona was invited to go to Atlanta to participate in a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. While she was there, her cousin Clennon arranged for her to give a press conference about her father’s plight.
Suddenly King’s story was news again. The Today show and 60 Minutes interviewed Oona about her father’s story. His sister-in-law, Carole King, and his niece, Peggy King Jorde, head of the African Burial Grounds Project in New York City, organized support, including a vigil outside the White House. Former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman spearheaded the legal and political support effort. The Albany Georgia City Council, now an integrated body, passed a resolution supporting a pardon. Even the Judge who had presided over the case in 1961, Judge Bootle, wrote the White House in support of a pardon.
At the same time that the momentum for a presidential pardon was building, King’s oldest brother was dying. King determined to return to his funeral even if it meant his arrest. A few days before King began his journey, on February 21, 2000, President Clinton issued a pardon for Preston King. At the age of 63, King was finally able to return home for the first time since 1961. He attended his brother’s funeral, visited with family and friends, and traveled to Georgia to have lunch with Judge Bootle.
King’s original ambition as a young man had been to return to the United States after completing his degree and become a diplomat. No one will ever know the contributions he might have made to his country of birth if a draft board had not refused to address him with a basic title of respect.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 14, 1999, p. 2D; March 26, 2000, p. 1M.
Black Issues in Higher Education, April 29, 1999, p. 30-31.
Boston Globe, March 21, 1999, p. A13.
Essence, February 2001, p. 152.
Los Angeles Times, Oct 31, 1999, Section A, p. 1.
People Weekly, March 13, 2000, p. 89-90.
Radcliffe Quarterly, Spring 2000.
Sunday Times (London) March 5, 2000, features.
Additional material was obtained online at the Lancaster University website, http://www.lancs.ac.uk; the Preston King Amnesty Center website, http://www.crcwd.com/ptking; and the Biogtaphy Resource Center Online.
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