The King Who Would Be Mayor
Metro Commissioner Art Teele was at the microphone when the ruckus began in the rear of the Liberty City auditorium. An old, hunched black man, wearing terry cloth sweatpants and an untucked T-shirt and topped with an explosion of white hair and a smear of red lipstick, had wandered into the hall and was handing out leaflets. Organizers of the July 17 event, a mayoral candidates' night sponsored by the Black Business Association, asked the gentleman to take a seat, but he refused and continued on his rounds. Once at the front of the room, the apparent interloper fended off a policeman, scrambled up on-stage, and plopped down in Teele's empty chair, nestling his rear end onto the commissioner's jacket.
The Reverend Rabbi Clennon King, pastor of the All Faiths Church of Divine Mission, dean of the Arenia Mallory School of Religion, president of the Miami Council for Church and Social Action, and the Party of God's candidate for Dade County mayor, had arrived for his first campaign appearance.
"I tried to speak but they cut off my microphone," claims the 76-year-old King. The event didn't go on much longer, he recalls: "I really do believe my presence caused it to be shorter than ordinary." It's the morning after and King is seated in front of the three-story Overtown apartment building-cum-seminary where he has spent most of his time since arriving in Miami in 1979. He's anything but apologetic for the previous night's behavior, saying he had been snubbed by the organizers and wanted people to know who he was.
King is one of eleven candidates for mayor and has never before held public office. Not that he hasn't tried: He was a candidate for the Metro Commission's District 3 seat in 1993. (His candidacy was detailed in a February 24, 1993, New Times story entitled "Meet the Candidate.") This time around, though, he has already done more campaigning than he did in that entire race, which garnered him 53 votes and left him dead last in a field of eight.
King opened a campaign account (with a current balance of about $333 dollars, he says) but he has no formal campaign team and only a vague campaign strategy: He says he will set his schedule "by inspiration" and with the blessing of his "campaign manager," God. "My platform is my life," he proclaims in his deep, mellifluous voice. "I just stand for people being themselves, if that stands for something." He proffers a copy of the same crudely stapled, two-page leaflet he distributed at the meeting. The first page is a copy of the oath he signed to become a political candidate. The second is a press release from the Party of God proclaiming the "awe-inspiring nomination" of King as its candidate to be "Mayor of the Americas" and trumpeting his lifetime achievements. Whatever a political consultant might suggest about his clothing and approach -- and one won't because King's is a solo, free-spirited campaign -- he already boasts a more worldly curriculum vitae than any of his opponents. And if victory in this election went go to the man who has most closely followed his convictions, King would win hands down.
Born into the most influential and affluent black family in Albany, Georgia, King has filled his life with academics and iconoclasm. He has studied widely and taught at several U.S. colleges and universities and at a high school in Ethiopia. He was locked up in an asylum after he tried to single-handedly integrate the University of Mississippi in 1958, several years before James Meredith was admitted: Doctors declared him insane because, they reasoned, only a crazy black man would try to integrate an all-white school. (The incident has been documented in civil rights literature and memorialized in an exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.) And King made headlines again in October 1976 when he attempted to integrate the all-white Baptist church of soon-to-be Pres. Jimmy Carter.
Not all his activities have been so honorable, though. In 1960 he was arrested during a custody dispute with his third ex-wife over their six children -- he tried to kidnap them and failed to pay alimony -- but jumped bail and fled the country. King says he spent the next six years as a fugitive in Canada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Europe, Mexico, Libya, and Ethiopia. He later surrendered voluntarily and spent four years in the San Quentin federal penitentiary.
After moving to Miami, King established his All Faiths Church of Divine Mission and the Arenia Mallory School of Religion, both of which operate out of the three-story building on NW Ninth Street, a structure most notable for its blue awnings emblazoned with the word heaven and the replica of Michelangelo's David standing in the front yard. Its residents, who number about a dozen and were all once homeless, compose the membership of both organizations and engage in an informal course of study in exchange for food and shelter, King says. (The building's shoestring budget is propped up by the reverend's Social Security checks, as well as food and monetary donations plus whatever the employed residents contribute from their day-job earnings.)
King's political career began in 1960 when he ran for U.S. president, the first black U.S. presidential nominee, he claims. (Federal Election Commission records indicate that he finished eleventh out of twelve candidates, garnering 1485 votes. John F. Kennedy won the election with 34,226,731 votes.) That effort was the first of numerous quixotic -- and unsuccessful -- runs for various political offices in Georgia and Florida.
This time around likely won't be much different. King himself predicts Metro Commissioner and mayoral candidate Alex Penelas will walk away with the crown. "Even if Penelas wins, that doesn't make me a loser," he explains. "I think I shall have aspired to make people in an underdog position be more assertive." His candidacy in and of itself may also be an affirmation of his willingness to live, a personal declaration that he's still on this Earth. A year ago King was bedridden and emaciated, prostate cancer and pain wracking his body, and was preparing to fly to Ethiopia to die. First, though, he assented to his children's wishes and returned to Albany, Georgia, for medical treatment. Chemotherapy and drugs have sent the cancer into remission, King reports.
The evening after his appearance at the Black Business Association, King hits the hustings again. The occasion is a mayoral and District 3 candidates' discussion at an Overtown community center. Although he's ten minutes late, King is the first candidate to show. His campaign apparel remains the same, accented with a hefty dollop of fuchsia lipstick ("The Egyptian pharaohs wore lipstick," he explains). Eventually three commission candidates show, but by the time the event begins -- twenty minutes late -- King is still the only mayoral candidate present.
This time he's a picture of gentility and decorum, but he alienates the crowd with his tendency to ramble in his responses. Supposedly addressing a question about the needs of Overtown, King digresses into a seemingly unrelated story about his fourth wife, prompting one audience member to shout, "What about the question? Answer the question!" As he approaches the dais later in the meeting, King implores the heckler not to interrupt him again, then adds, "He may be jealous of me 'cause of my lipstick!"
Later King is frank in his self-assessment. "I made an ass of myself didn't I?" he mumbles. "Of course, I was an ass before I got there, but I made myself a bigger ass! But I'm not discouraged because I'm accustomed to being a fool.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.