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C.B. King

Silhouette

By Ellen Lake

C.B. King is a man on a seesaw. He is a Negro in a white man's profession--one of two Negro lawyers in Albany, Georgia. Albany, a former slave-trading center, today is the home of the Albany Movement, probably the most vigorous local southern rights group. As chief counsel to the Movement, King has defended more than one thousand people arrested for civil rights activities in that city--as well as others, such as John Perdew '64, in nearby Americus.

King, or C. B., as his friends call him, does not look or sound like a southern civil rights leader. At Harvard last month he wore a conservative dark suit and a belted khaki raincoat which might have come from Brooks Brothers. When he speaks his voice is deep and grave with no trace of southern accent.

The lack of accent is unusual, for King was born in Albany and has lived there for most of his forty years. As a child he attended segregated schools which are still segregated today. Last year, however, he brought an integration suit against the Board of Education.

King decided to become a lawyer because he knew what it was like to be deprived of rights. On one occasion when he was ten years old, he was playing in a playground near his house when a policeman drove up and jumped out of his prowl car brandishing a gun. "All of us little colored boys ran like chickens," King recalls. "I hid under a building but some of the kids were arrested for 'vagrancy' or 'loitering.' Right then I felt that there was something wrong with the way the law operated in the Negro community. It was the symbol of the kind of force which I couldn't reconcile with what was right.

After graduating from Fisk University and Western Reserve Law School, King returned to set up practice as the first Negro lawyer in Albany. There he ran into trouble, especially when he sat down in the lawyers' box which had never before had a Negro occupant.

The sheriff in the courtroom walked over to him. "King, we got you a special seat, how do you like that?" he said.

"No thank you," King answered, and the sheriff moved off uneasily.

A few minutes later, he came back. "King, we ain't had no trouble before you come here, and we don't want none now," he said. "You go back and sit with the other niggers. Do you hear me, boy?"

Finally, King got up from the seat.

"I think the reason that I moved," he remarks now, "was that my first responsibility was to my client, and my refusal to leave would have been highly prejudicial to his case. Maybe that's just a rationalization, I don't know. The incident dramatizes the constant division of loyalties which King must continually face. As a lawyer, his first duty is to his client. As a Negro, his duty is to himself--and thus to his people. On this occasion, at least, King's role as a Negro was finally victorious, for the next day, when the case was through, he returned to the courtroom and refused to move from the white lawyers' box.

There is no question about King's complete devotion to the civil rights cause. "The single great American issue is race," he says and it is a theme to which he continually returns. During dinner in Leverett House, he listened silently as several students discussed the reaction of whites to recent Negro militancy. Then suddenly he broke in--"But how will white attitudes affect the Negro movement?" he asked.

Yet he has an equally deep faith in the law and its power. At a time when people involved in civil rights, including at least one Justice Department lawyer, are skeptical of the ability of the law to help the Negro, King does not waver in his belief in the law's efficacy. "If laws are conscionably created, interpreted, and executed," he said at Harvard, "they must help the Negro." King manages to reconcile the two causes by his concept of his role as a lawyer. Essentially, he considers a courtroom appearance a chance to educate whites about Negroes. "I like to practice law," he says, "because I'm in the peculiar position of being able to talk to twelve people who have to listen to what I say. White men usually think the Negro is invisible, they don't look at him. But in court I am the action--they have to look at me. If nothing more, just the trauma of my blackness confronting them in this setting is educative."

This uneasy balance forces him to act more conservatively than most southern rights leaders. He refuses, for example, to participate in demonstrations, because "we can't afford the luxury of having our only lawyer in jail." Instead, he may observe the pickets from a distance offering advice about an appropriate method of picketing and warning demonstrators not to block doorways or pedestrian traffic. He will address a freedom rally only to explain the legal issues of the situation. His most intimate contact with the Movement is through the Executive Board.

Sometimes, however, he is involved against his will. Two years ago, while asking permission to visit a SNCC field worker who had been badly beaten by a prison trusty, King himself was viciously caned by the county sheriff, the same one who had harassed him in court. Unlike King, the sheriff had no trouble reconciling King's roles as lawyer and Negro--he just ignored the former. "Yeah, I knocked hell out of him," he told a reporter later, "and I'll do it again. I'm a white man and he's a damn nigger."

Interestingly, King envisions the ultimate solution to the problem of discrimination neither in direct local action nor in individual law suits. Rather, he believes like Adam Smith in the concept of an "invisible hand," which leads men, in seeking their private good, to achieve the good of the community.

"America," King says, "is substantially controlled by a few people; it is not a representative government. Congressmen have a vested interest in seeing that America maintains her world hegemony, and they feel it essential to protect this interest." Thus, these leaders will educate their constituencies to accept the Negro.

Perhaps it is for this reason that King has entered the five-way primary race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although, as a Negro, he is not likely to win, he has been stumping the district, encouraging both Negroes and whites to register and vote. "I hope the poor whites will realize that they are just as exploited as the Negroes," King says. "Perhaps in the short run, we won't gain from having more whites voting, but we have to look to the long run."

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