CB King was a well-known African American attorney known for his courage, eloquence in the courtroom, and legal prowess in the face of fierce and even violent opposition during the civil rights struggle in southwest Georgia. As the first black attorney in the area, King inspired a generation of young legal interns and civil rights activists.

Early years

The third of seven sons, Chevene Bowers King was born in Albany in 1923 to Margaret Slater and Clennon W. “Daddy” King, both of whom were alumni of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Daddy King had earned a Tuskegee expense by working as a buggy boy for the Institute’s famous president, Booker T. Washington. The pursuit of education, an important part of the King family’s priorities, became the path to distinction for the young King and his brother Preston King. Ultimately, the family’s involvement in the civil rights movement led to national and international prominence for four of the King’s sons, CB, Preston, Slater and Clennon.

CB king

Courtesy Carol King

Like his siblings, CB King was raised in Albany’s segregated school system. After a brief stint in Tuskegee and a position in a naval war plant in the Northwest, he served in the US Navy. King then attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, which he graduated in 1949. He was denied access to Georgia’s white-only law schools and enrolled at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1951, a year before he went to law school, King married Carol Roumain; after all, they had five children.

Career

Back in Georgia, where he opened his law firm in the mid-1950s, King was one of only a handful of African American attorneys in the state and the only black attorney south of Atlanta to practice civil and criminal cases. King’s reception at the courts was often extremely impolite. One of his legal partners in the 1970s, Herbert Phipps, who later served as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia, recalled the hostility his partner faced. Phipps noted that the court officials didn’t want King in court and would try to get him to leave or sit down with the observers. At one point the judge would not drop the case at King’s request, even though the case went on late into the night. When King asked for water, he was brought a bucket with a ladle. Significantly, he made this a judicial file that later went to the appeals court.

King and HollowellKing and Hollowell

Courtesy of Cochran Studios / AE Jenkins Photography

In the face of angry opposition both inside and outside the courtroom, he stood so firm that he was once asked if he had a chip on his shoulder. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “I’ve got the law on my shoulder.” Another time King was called “CB” instead of “Mr. King, ”the conventional form of address given to white men. He responded to the rudeness by calling Police Chief Pritchett by his first name Laurie.

In the earlier days of his practice, withdrawals by a higher court were the norm for King, whose clients were often wrongly tried and convicted before all-white juries. Sometimes he was unsuccessful, including when he was unable to reverse the conviction of his brother Preston, who was convicted of conscientious objection in 1961. Much of King’s legal success is due to his masterful use of language, which often dismayed opponents in the courtroom. Sometimes his superior use of words provoked anger in opposing lawyers who weren’t sure what he was saying. Georgia civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, who was defended by King when he was incarcerated in Americus in the 1960s, quipped that King was using words only King could understand. King’s practically photographic memory of the law put his opponents at a disadvantage. To the dismay of the judge and court, he meticulously quoted a corresponding law and sent the officers to the books to check the accuracy of his testimony. He was invariably right.

The era of civil rights

The 1960s brought a new set of complexities and challenges as the ongoing struggles for equal opportunities escalated in southwest Georgia as throughout the south. Civil rights activists in the area turned to King for immeasurable help. He was central to legal defense throughout the Albany Movement and beyond, defending the Freedom Riders, the Americus Four, incarcerated civil rights protesters, and others involved in the fight for equality. His most famous clients included Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr. and William G. Anderson, the leader of the Albany movement.

Leader of the Albany MovementLeader of the Albany Movement

Courtesy of Cochran Studios / AE Jenkins Photography

When King visited the prison in 1962 to investigate white civil rights activist Bill Hansen, whose white inmates had broken jaws, Sheriff Cull Campbell attacked King with a stick. A national photographer’s snapshot of the battered, bloodied, and bandaged lawyer was captured by the news services, published in the first section of the New York Times, and broadcast around the world. These and other incidents inspired King to fight the forces that tried so often to stop his legal defense work. He worked hard to block literacy tests for voters and to incorporate schools, voting booths, public housing, the civic employee pool, and the jury system. His efforts resulted in the 1968 Jury Selection and Service Act.

CB King after beatingCB King after beating

Courtesy of Cochran Studios / AE Jenkins Photography

Political career

King made two attempts to secure political office. His race for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1964 was unsuccessful, but it was a milestone because he was the first black candidate in Georgia to run for Congress since the reconstruction period.

Five years later, in 1969, nominated by the state’s black leadership, he became Georgia’s first African-American candidate for governor. He was supported by Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Julian Bond. Harry Belafonte gave a benefit performance for the campaign. Although he did not win the governorship, his candidacy inspired large numbers of blacks to register, and their voting power ensured that several black candidates were elected for local and regional office.

As a mentor to legal interns, King had a profound influence on the country’s legal system. Law students came to his office in Albany from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Howard, and Princeton Universities, and from the University of Massachusetts and the University of California at Berkeley. A staggering number of these young protégés had life-changing experiences under his guidance, and a considerable number later became highly respected judges, members of Congress, and respected civil and environmental rights advocates. A 1963 Harvard intern Elizabeth Holtzman became the Brooklyn District Attorney, New York City Auditor, member of the US House of Representatives, and member of the Congressional Committee that investigated the Watergate scandal during Richard Nixon’s presidency.

CB King US CourthouseCB King US Courthouse

Photo by Meg Inscoe

In January 1988, just weeks before his death, the Georgia state legislature officially recognized his contribution to society. In the state capital, he received the first Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Georgia Legislature and Governor Joe Frank Harris. As a crowning tribute to King’s legacy, the new federal court in downtown Albany was named after him in November 2002.