This is an unapologetic announcement: Black History begins on January 1 and ends on December 31 of each and every year.
James Howard Meredith was the first African-American student to be admitted to an all-white university in Mississippi. He was the first to break the color barrier, but he was not the first black man to make an attempt at integration.
Did you know Clennon Washington King, Jr. was the second African-American man to run for the office of President of the United States? He was nicknamed “The Black Don Quixote.” Part of this quote derives from a Spanish novel written by Miguel de Cervantes. At the center of this story lies a man consumed with idealism and nobility. Sadly, the post-chivalric (reminisce of the confederate south) world rejects him and views him as insane.
Clennon Washington King Jr. was the first African-American to attempt to attend the all-white University of Mississippi.
He was born into a middle-class family on July 18, 1920, in Albany, Georgia. His father Clennon Washington King Sr. was a prominent and respected civil rights activist, a Tuskegee student and designated chauffeur for Booker T. Washington. His mother was Margaret Allegra Slater. Clennon Jr. was the eldest of seven children.
Before pursuing his doctorate degree at the University of Mississippi, Clennon earned his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee Institute and earned his master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University. Afterward, he taught at various black colleges during the 40s and 50s.
It was the summer of 1958 when Mr. King attempted to enroll in the University of Mississippi Graduate Program. Prior to that time, no African-American had EVER applied to the university. The system of structural racism was incised and they were intent on making an example out of Mr. King. They set plans in motion to further degrade his humanity and made ready to wreak horrifying vengeance upon him.
Much to their bewilderment, the system discovered Mr. King was unyielding. He was determined to continue with the registration process. When Mr. King showed up at the registrar’s office, Clennon was met by Mississippian Governor J.P. Coleman along with members of the local and state authorities.
Police officers physically removed Mr. King from the grounds of the university. The Governor had him jailed and two physicians were ordered to examine him and declare him insane. Afterward, Mr. King was committed to a hellish two-week stay in an asylum at Whitfield State Mental Hospital located in Jackson, Mississippi. One can only imagine the level of inhuman treatment and trauma he experienced behind those walls. When you get a chance, google “Exhuming a dark past: Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum’s 7,000 coffins.”
After a heated but successful battle in the court system, Clennon’s younger brother, CB King, a civil rights attorney, was able to secure his release.
Allegedly a Mississippi judge ruled that “only insanity” could make a Black man think he could actually apply to the University of Mississippi. Mr. Clennon paid dearly for his bold and daring acts. But all was not lost; Clennon’s tenacity yielded beautiful fruit when James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi fondly known as “Ole Miss.” It was James Meredith and future black graduates who reaped the benefits of Mr. King’s “good trouble.”
To his credit, this warrior spent five decades fighting for civil rights as a controversial and eccentric professor, preacher and political candidate. He died of prostate cancer in February 2000.
Today we stand only 64 years on the other side of that summer day in 1958. It is important that we remember and speak the name of Professor Clennon Washington King Jr. For in doing so, we remember his commitment and investment towards higher education for black people. We thank him for his fearless defiance, and we pay eternal homage to the memory of “The Black Don Quixote.”
Photo credit: Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission