Special to Find It In Fondren® (UMMC Public Affairs/Gary Pettus)
The Rev. Ralph Edwin “Ed” King grew up in an outwardly peaceful town of tall, tumbling bluffs, streets paved with brick and a courthouse with 30-foot columns and an old clock tower that watched the river and the world pass by.
But on hot summer days the rumbles of storms that churned the Mississippi echoed the turmoil of a long-ago war, a war many were still fighting in the 20th century there in Vicksburg and across the state, where some regarded King as the enemy.
The Warren County native’s crime was to join the Civil Rights Movement as a white minister advocating for black voting rights in the ’50s and ’60s.
Down through the years, his reputation for activism followed him to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where he joined the School of Health Related Professions in 1974.
“Right here on campus we have a direct participant in events that shaped our nation,” said Dr. Ralph Didlake, UMMC associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer, who hopes King will work with him to archive his papers.
“He will, on the one hand, downplay his role and importance,” Didlake said, “but, on the other hand, I believe he knows how important is the history he holds. Even today, he’s driven to write and record it.”
King’s narrative describes his part in a movement that made him respected among some of his peers but suspect among some within his race.
Now, decades later, King, 81, is a retired minister of the Mississippi Conference, United Methodist Church; he keeps an office on the UMMC campus, where he still lectures on the history of medical ethics, social factors of health care and the like.
He can also describe with authority the private words and hopes of such civil rights leaders as the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., Andrew Young Jr. and, particularly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
“Medgar became the older brother and teacher,” Ed King said. “And Martin must have felt somehow that this white Southerner was worth redeeming.”
Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was one of the Mississippians who urged Ed King to come back home after his studies up North. King remembers, clearly, a meeting with Evers in the early summer of 1963.
“It was a religious experience,” King said. “I listened to Medgar speak about a decision that had tormented him.” It was one of the last decisions his friend would make.
‘AN EMBARRASSMENT TO AMERICA’
Among the sights that greet visitors to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are photos of a young minister with a bandaged face. They were taken when King was perhaps better known, in the ’60s, when he was the survivor of a suspicious car wreck.
But Ed King’s name still resonates today with veterans of the movement, journalists, historians and scholars. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis also honors his contributions, naming him an “Icon of the Movement.”
“He is a classic example of a civil rights activist,” said Dr. Stephanie Rolph, associate professor of history at Millsaps College, one of the institutions that cultivated King’s sense of justice.
“They were behind-the-scenes, often unrecognizable, doing the real work that goes into organizing. Most were not Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks or Fannie Lou Hamer,” said Rolph, whose specialty is civil rights history in the South.
“They were people on the ground, producing flyers, going door-to-door, laying the groundwork. Ed King is very quick to point out those he thought were more dynamic than him and who haven’t gotten enough attention. He deflects the attention away from himself.”
Certainly, he tried to do so in a recent interview on the UMMC campus, where he retains what amounts to a courtesy appointment as associate professor of clinical health sciences in SHRP.
“I was in jail less than a dozen times,” King said. “Some of my black friends were in jail at least 40 times.
“Violence was just part of it,” he said, at one point adjusting a necktie and collar covering scars on his throat. They are reminders that, a century after the Civil War had preserved the Union, many white Southerners were still challenging the federal rule of law; they were targeting anyone who supported de-segregation.
“Just about anybody who was involved in the civil rights movement here was probably arrested, beaten, tortured,” King said.
The brutality he and many others encountered was a reaction, in part, to the 1963 Freedom Vote, a piece of the effort to restore suffrage to disenfranchised black citizens. For the most part, the power of the ballot had been denied African-Americans in the South, since at least the end of the 19th century.
About a year after the Freedom Vote began, King helped establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a proposed antidote to the regular, segregationist Democrats.
As an officer of the MFDP, he lobbied for equitable voter registration laws, traveling to the nation’s capital, where one U.S. Congressman told him, “‘I know you work for Chairman Mao.’”
After making this reference to the leader of Red China, the lawmaker “told me to never come back to Congress again,” King said.
In his own state, this grandson of a Mississippi sheriff would have been killed, he said, if certain white cops had ever found him alone in a car at night.
His car was run off the road. He was chased. He was a passenger in a car that was crushed from the side by a speeding vehicle. He was hospitalized several times. Part of his face has been reconstructed.
“The movement was an embarrassment to America,” King said. “It fit into the pattern of hysteria that dominated politics then. We were grassroots, and that’s a threat to people who run the world. Only if they can predict your moves will they tolerate you.”
It’s hard to exaggerate the dangers those in the movement faced, said Dr. Trent Brown (formerly Trent Watts), professor of American studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
“When Ed King and other civil rights workers tell you their impressions of violence, fears of violence, fears of death, you may wonder, ‘Is this exaggerated?’ The short answer is ‘no,’ said Brown, the co-author of “Ed King’s Mississippi: Behind the Scenes of Freedom Summer.”
Published by University Press of Mississippi in 2014, “Ed King’s Mississippi” is a collection of about 40 photographs King took during the crucial summer of 1964. Brown, who grew up in McComb and Brookhaven, knew of King’s contributions to the movement and proposed the book’s concept some 50 years later.
It includes Ed King’s written impressions of the work done by Martin Luther King, Freedom Summer volunteers and the local people. The photos include one of Martin Luther King smiling and holding a cue stick as he’s surrounded by listeners inside a Neshoba County pool hall shortly after the murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia.
It would be another month or so before the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were discovered. It was less than four years before the murder of Martin Luther King. In the photo shot that day in Philadelphia the most famous martyr of the movement may have looked relaxed, but he wasn’t; no one was, Ed King said.
“Some feared we would all be bombed inside the tiny pool hall.” Their offense was to listen to MLK’s message: support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and register to vote.
Later, white clergy outside the state condemned Martin Luther King for appearing in a pool hall, Ed King said.
“Meanwhile, the search for the bodies continued.”
Author’s note: Originally written February 15, 2018, this week, the nation is reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy 50 years after his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis in the wake of his involvement with that city’s 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike. His legacy and lessons are carried out by today’s civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Ed King, a white minister who in the ‘50s and ‘60s crusaded for black voting rights and other events that helped shape the nation.