Meet the Candidate
One county commission candidate has taken Dade's new era of political change very seriously. He's not going to lobby any bigtime politicians and power brokers in his bid for District 3. He's not going to sit on any panels or engage in any televised debates. He's not even going to distribute bumper stickers advertising his name or campaign posters displaying his beaming face.
Instead he is going to get some people together and walk the streets of the district A which covers most of Overtown, a section of Liberty City, Brownsville, and a portion of Little River A handing out small slips of paper bearing a single photocopied exhortation: "YOU'VE BEEN FUCKED BY ALL THE SMART-ASSES. SO, NOW, ON TUES., MARCH 16, 1993, VOTE FOR A CRAZY NIGGER."
The Rev. Clennon King, a large man with a face full of deep wrinkles and a wild puff of white hair, chuckles at the possibility that the leaflet may not be instilling much confidence among potential voters. But that doesn't bother the 73-year-old minister, who has lived in Overtown since 1979. "No, I'm not concerned with votes. That would set me up to be disappointed," he remarks in a sonorous voice. Slight tonal affectations hint at a very distant English accent. "I am running for the running. I have the urge to do it. It's a whim."
King's candidacy A his first for any public office in Dade County A may represent the ultimate articulation of new political liberation in Miami's black and Hispanic communities. On the other hand, it may simply be another impulsive outburst from a highly unpredictable and unusual character.
Expressing an opinion that has framed King's life, one Overtown activist whispers, "I don't think he's playing with a full deck." It's the same thing King was told in 1958 when he tried to enroll in the University of Mississippi, several years before James Meredith was admitted amid race riots. Doctors declared him insane and threw him in an asylum because, they reasoned, only a crazy black man would try to integrate an all-white school. (The incident has been widely chronicled in civil rights literature, including Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Parting the Waters, which describes King as an "educated, eccentric" professor.)
That incident was only a highlight in a long and extraordinary life. "The story of Clennon King is a never-ending saga," says Bill Davis, long-time editor of the Albany Journal, a 43-year-old weekly newspaper in King's hometown of Albany, Georgia. "If you were to write a book about him, the opening paragraph would begin: 'How does a member of one of the South's most prestigious black families end up in the hole at San Quentin penitentiary?"
King's father was a postman in Albany, patriarch of the town's most influential and affluent black family. He had seven sons, all highly educated, many of whom studied abroad. "We were big niggers and we're still big niggers there," says the normally eloquent minister. "There are hardly bigger niggers than the Kings in Albany." Wearing flip-flops, black sweat pants, and an old sweater, King is seated in a ratty deck chair on the balcony of an aging three-story building he owns in Overtown. As he recounts the story of his life, he ignores several wasps buzzing around his hair, a bush of curlicues and frizzy shocks shooting every which way.
By the time of his institutionalization at the age of 38, King says he already held a B.A. from Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University), a master's degree in history from Case Western Reserve University, and had studied at several other schools, including Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, where he earned credits toward a doctorate in Egyptology. He had also been through nearly a dozen teaching stints at various Southern colleges and universities, including the University of Georgia, University of Virginia, and Florida Memorial College in North Dade. Some time during all this schooling, King says, he adopted an English accent, the vestiges of which still occasionally rise up in his speech.
Following his release from the Mississippi mental institution in 1958, King says he sought political asylum in Mexico and Cuba in protest of racial discrimination in the United States. The fruitless action led to the breakup of his third marriage and a custody battle over their six children. In 1960, after a botched effort to kidnap his children from their mother's California home, and after failure to pay alimony, King was arrested and jailed. But he says he jumped bail and escaped to Hawaii and spent the next six years as a fugitive in Canada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Europe, Mexico, Libya, and Ethiopia. After voluntarily surrendering himself to authorities, he claims, he spent four years in San Quentin and several other California prisons until that state's supreme court released him.
During the 1970s, King established a mission for the homeless in Albany, Georgia, and became a perennial political candidate. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia in 1970, for the state legislature in 1974 and 1976, and for the commissions of the City of Albany and Dougherty County in 1976. (He had already run for president, in 1960, as a representative of the Independent Afro-American Party. According to Federal Election Commission records, King finished that race eleventh out of twelve candidates, garnering 1485 votes. John F. Kennedy won the election with 34,226,731 votes.)
King made national headlines in October 1976 when he attempted to integrate the all-white Baptist church of soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter. In a news article, Carter A then the governor of Georgia A had been quoted as saying he "presumed" his Plains, Georgia, church would accept black applicants, although the congregation had voted in the 1960s to exclude blacks and "activists." King, who at the time was pastor of a small church 35 miles away in Albany, took up the challenge. According to an account in the New York Times, Carter joined other members of the congregation in rejecting the application because, they claimed, King failed to appear before the church's membership committee. (King's opponents also suggested that his application was politically motivated, claiming that President Gerald Ford's allies had paid him to try to embarrass Carter days before the presidential election. King denies the charges.)
King had already acquired notoriety in southwest Georgia. Earlier that year, in his simultaneous run for Albany City Commission, Dougherty County Commission, and the state legislature, he advertised a $100 offer to anyone who promised to vote for him. When King was found guilty of election violations, a judge offered him twelve months' probation, but the feisty preacher would have none of it. When his appeal failed in 1978, King fled to Florida, where, two years later, he made plans to run for Congress against Rep. William Lehman. But once again political good fortune eluded him: King paid the $3000 qualifying fee with a rubber check and his name was removed from the ballot.
The minister has spent most of the past fourteen years inside the apartment building he owns at 277 NW Ninth Street, in the heart of Overtown. The word "HEAVEN" is emblazoned on blue awnings hanging from the third floor. A small-scale plaster replica of Michelangelo's David stands in the front yard. Until earlier this month, plastic Christmas wreaths still adorned the front doors of each of the twelve units.
This is where King runs the All Faiths Church of Divine Mission, which doubles as both a religious college A the Arenia Mallory School of Religion, named after King's fourth wife A and a homeless shelter. One room has been converted into the "Jehovah 24-hour-a-day Chapel" and contains several chairs, a Bible on a podium, and King's high-backed wooden "throne." Another has become the "Christian Chapel," complete with a small electric organ and a ring of wooden chairs donated by a local Holiday Inn. The "Islamic Chapel" A designed for "prayer, meditation, and recreation," King says A is outfitted with a pool table, several lounge chairs, and a 25-inch color television set.
The college's brochure, a single sheet of paper folded over to make a four-sided leaflet, describes it as a "school for real, get down people." King elaborates:
"I cater to the bums, hoboes, the rude element." They currently number about a dozen, who, by and large, wandered in off the street. In exchange for food and shelter, King explains, the "matriculants" engage in an informal course of study. Class schedules are tailored to each student, King says, but there are no exams. By following a curriculum of 44 "seminars" with titles like "The Perfect Jesus Knowledge of God" and "Your Tongue's Most Ancient Civilized Roots," a student can graduate with a doctorate of divinity.
"The brochure was the most skimpy one I've ever seen," admits Charles Davis, a program specialist for the state Board of Independent Colleges and Universities, which has certified King's school since 1987. "When I saw it, I kind of squinted." Davis says that in past years, King has been able to satisfy the basic requirements of certification, which legally authorizes him to issue a doctorate of divinity. But, Davis adds, "This year I'm going to require he be more detailed in the courses he offers."
In Dade's community of homeless advocates, King is a somewhat mysterious presence. While the church is a member of the Daily Bread Food Bank, which distributes food to more than 700 nonprofit, charitable organizations in South Florida, few homeless advocates know anything about King. "In the black and Hispanic communities, several small churches have set up their own little shticks," says Mark Buchbinder, president of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, who says he has never heard of King. "He may be one of them." (King says the church is supported by private donations and by income the residents make through extracurricular work.)
While in Miami, King has only occasionally raged into the public eye. In 1985 the minister made news when his apartment complex was cited for a remarkable 792 housing code violations, including a leaky roof, sagging ceilings, exposed wiring, and faulty plumbing. And that came only after housing inspectors were able to get inside the place; housing authorities twice needed warrants and police escorts to inspect the building. "He's been very belligerent," the Miami Herald quoted Dade's chief code enforcement officer as saying at the time. "He's just one of those far-out kind of individuals. He likes to do things his own way." On one occasion, recalls an inspector who requested anonymity, a housing official was welcomed into the minister's apartment only to find King sitting naked on the bed. "He made no attempt to cover himself up," the inspector recalls with amusement.
For several years during the Eighties, King was also a regular substitute teacher at several public schools in Dade County. Antoinette Moss, secretary/treasurer and coordinator of substitute teachers at Brownsville Junior High School,
says King was "always lively and very cheerful. The kids liked him, the teachers liked him. I used to use him for the exceptional children [those with learning disabilities] and, you know, they require a lot of care and attention."
Enlivened by the new federally imposed district election system and the possibilities it holds, King has stepped once again into the limelight, his temper ablaze. He filed for candidacy this past month, arriving at the county clerk's office with several homeless men and handing out fliers advertising himself as "the choice of Mohamet, Moses, and Jesus Christ." (He joins seven other candidates for District 3, including incumbent Dade Commissioner Arthur Teele and former state Rep. Darryl Reaves.)
During the past few weeks, King has hooked up his mouth to his fax machine and screamed fiery messages across the nation. "To The Mother Fucking Racist Miami Herald," he addressed one missive on January 17, lambasting the paper for leaving his name out of a survey of potential candidates for the county commission. "I'm not begging you Ku Kluxers for shit."
In another, sent the following day to dozens of local and national newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, King unveiled his campaign's first platform proposal: the immediate suspension of the Miami Herald's legal right to operate in Dade County. "The Herald is a one-eyed 'information' monster and a daily literary brainwashing machine, controlling (and hence operating) the affairs of Dade County, Florida, as if it were the slave plantation and ancient Indian reserve it was before the War Between the States," King wrote. Since then, he has refused Herald requests to interview him.
Earlier this month the reverend sent a telegram to the White House and faxes to newspaper editors around the U.S. in an attempt to block the nomination of State Attorney Janet Reno to U.S. Attorney General. Somebody heard his cry: the Washington Times, Washington, D.C.'s conservative daily newspaper, solicited a quote from him for a story that ran February 11, the day President Clinton named Reno. "She has never done anything for the dark-skinned people here except run them out of downtown Miami," King told the newspaper. "Poor people are telling me they will just be glad to see her gone."
As a dissenting voice, King was virtually alone among a nationwide chorus of approval. But he's used to that. "People who are more familiar with me will say that Clennon does it the hard way," he notes. "I'm accustomed to being ignored."
King certainly wasn't ignored when, the day after filing for candidacy, he stopped payment on his $450 qualifying check. His reason: the Miami Herald exercises too much influence over elections. In response, Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin has sued to remove King from the Metro ballot.
The minister also faces another minor legal hurdle. This past Tuesday, February 16, Miami police arrested him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence after he tangled with workers during the demolition of a city-owned building next door to his Ninth Street church. King apparently was concerned about the well-being of several squatters who had taken up residence in the decaying structure. According to a police report, King blocked a bulldozer, attempted to prevent gas company employees from disconnecting the building's gas source, and tried to hit them with "several of their large wrenches." Police were called and carted the reverend off to jail. "They were going to release him the same day," says Valencia King, a sister-in-law living in Alabama, "but he refused to go until he got an apology from the arresting officers." As of this past Monday, the Rev. Clennon King was still being held. In the jail's psychiatric facility.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.