Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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A Seat at the Table

By Eurydice Stanley

When asked if he participated in the sit-ins that desegregated Pensacola, 91-year-old Civil Rights Activist Howard King responded simply, “While they were at the counter, we were at the table.”

His statement reflects the symbiotic relationship of successful grassroots movements. He believes actions in the field are nothing without strong leadership negotiations.  “Demonstrations had their place, but they weren’t for me. My talent was at the table.”

King’s life has been fascinating, and thankfully, he has written a 600-page, 17-chapter memoir titled, “In Spite of the Odds,” to chronicle his experiences. His book details his life to ensure that his five great-grandchildren had a foundational understanding of their genealogy.

“I’ve always had a good memory,” said King.  “I wanted to share it with my family while I could.  My book goes back to day 1, and I’m proud that I can still remember names, places and events.”

King recounted a few of the stories captured in his book. He served as secretary for the Pensacola Biracial Committee from the time it was established in 1963 until he moved to Atlanta for a position with the Army Materiel Command in 1965.  The Biracial Committee was formed because the city leaders wanted to prevent being forced by outside entities to desegregate Pensacola.  The committee was comprised of black and white leaders dedicated to promoting positive relations within the city.

“They wanted to integrate the city without fanfare,” said King, and keep the lines of communication open.  The 707-day Pensacola sit-ins were the longest of any sit-ins, leading to a loss of 80 percent of the revenue for downtown Pensacola businesses.  According to J. Michael Butler’s book, “Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County,” the Biracial Committee was a Special Committee of the City Council, which “worked diligently with white and black leaders to obtain peaceful integration during the sit-ins.”

The Biracial Committee was established due to the urgings of Civil Rights icon Reverend William C. Dobbins.

“He was fearless,” said King.  “He didn’t beat around the bush.”  Rev. Dobbins exuded the leadership that King notes is sorely missing today, according to King.

“Hosea Williams got folks to the table, but Andrew Young coordinated change,” said King.

He laments the fact that there are few leaders today like those of his era.

“Some can say what is wrong, but they don’t do anything, which doesn’t do any good,” said King, who has always taken pride in being a leader and a bridge-builder.  “Leaders today have good dialogue, but their commitment is weak.”

To be effective, King says there must be total commitment, purpose and focus, noting, “It depends on where your priorities are…change means controversy.”

After King’s father died in 1936, he dropped out of school to go to work in 1939 while he was in the ninth grade.  He started out delivering groceries, and later served as a waiter at the Cadet Mess at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1941. His supervisor, Chief Petty Officer Winfred J. Beaudette, influenced him to join the Navy, which he did in September of 1942.

“Serving 20 years and retiring at age 37 sounded great to me,” said King.  “They had the draft back then, but I wasn’t drafted, I volunteered to serve.”

At that time, segregation was prevalent amongst the services.  Although the majority of African Americans served in the Messman Branch as stewards, King drove, carrying cadets back and forth to their meals and taking food out to the field prior to formal mess halls being established.

“I was fortunate,” said King, “I changed my clothes, put on my uniform and kept the same job five days a week for two years.  I had good division officers, and I made 1st Class Petty Officer before my 19th birthday.”

He clearly recognized the irony of his service during World War II, noting, “We fought for liberties and rights that we didn’t have at home.”

Eventually, King went back to school to obtain his high school equivalency, which he earned in only six months due to his excellent memory.  Once King started his education, he accelerated quickly, receiving his associate’s degree from Washington Junior College in 1954. He completed his education at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, where he majored in business and economics. He graduated in 1956 with a 3.8 average. A true “Rattler,” King has not missed more than 10 homecomings since his graduation and recently attended the FAMU vs. Tuskegee Classic in Mobile, Ala.

As the first African-American to serve in the majority of the positions he has held throughout his military and civilian career, King is well aware of the importance of service.  He considers himself blessed to be supported by his supervisors due to his record of success and his ability to bring about results.  White subordinates frequently complained about his leadership selection, but he was never removed.

“Character is who you are, but your reputation comes from someone else,” he told Inweekly.  “It is hard to score based on a façade.  Eventually, you have to work, and act.”

Labeled a “maverick” by a member of the Biracial Committee, King is proud of that title because it was given due to the recognition of his unwillingness to go against his convictions and his association of progress with change.  Throughout his career, he was trusted and respected in his jobs. Ultimately, he was selected for positions of higher authority during a period of time when those positions were given to persons who were older or members of the majority.  King became the first African-American to integrate the Civilian Personnel Office at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1959.

King married the former Lillie Pollard in 1945 while he was in the Navy.  After their marriage, King’s focus changed. “I wanted to be a family man. I wanted to be home, not separated due to (Navy) deployments.”

He credits the success of his 71-year marriage to mutual respect. The couple raised three children, Howard Jr., who served 30 years as a Marine, daughter Joanne King Car, who served in nursing administration at a VA hospital, and son William, an attorney.  All three of his children are retired after successful careers, but William continues in private law practice in Washington, DC.

King is excited about his book being published by the end of the year.  He cautions today’s leaders to take a dual approach, noting, “Many are trying to change the system, which is hard to control.  But self-control, that’s 100 percent controllable.  You don’t hear today’s leaders talking about that, but you should.”

After 91 years of successful, fulfilled living, King ought to know.