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Obituaries

Celes King III, 79; L.A. Civil Rights Leader

April 14, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Celes King III, outspoken black activist and founding state chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, who was instrumental in renaming Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Los Angeles, has died. He was 79.

King died Saturday night at his South Los Angeles home, said his longtime publicity photographer Jimmie James, of a variety of ailments, including gangrene and kidney failure.

The well-known businessman lived in an apartment above the building complex at 1528-30 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. that houses his Celes King Bail Bond Services, now run by his daughter Teri, and has been the operation site for several of the organizations King promoted.

Among those were the state CORE, loosely affiliated with the national group formed in Chicago in 1942, which King developed and chaired from 1975 until 2002.

King also co-founded the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles and in 1983 helped change the name of the street where he set up shop from Santa Barbara Avenue to King Boulevard.

"I worked with Dr. King back in the '60s. [Renaming the street] is an important cosmetic reminder for generations to come," said King, who was not related to the civil rights leader, at the street renaming parade on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 1983. He was also a co-founder of the parade, which became an annual event.

Adrian Dove, who replaced King as California CORE chairman, said King often told him how his political, philosophical and public service goals had been shaped by the full cross-section of black America, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph and Lester Young, that had passed through his family's famed Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue.

Born in Chicago, King moved to Los Angeles with his parents, Leontyne, who became the city's first black library commissioner, and Celes King Jr., who with young Celes' uncle, Jimmy Nelson, operated several shops and the Dunbar in its heyday.

King was named to the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission in 1968 and later served as its president. He also headed the Los Angeles Rumor Control and Information Center and the Los Angeles central branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People after the 1965 Watts riots.

In the late 1960s, the articulate King was highly critical of NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins, calling him "the No. 1 Uncle Tom in America" who has "become so much of a part of the white establishment he is no longer an effective representative of black people."

The squabble prompted an NAACP investigation of King for purported mismanagement of his chapter, but charges were later dropped.

A real estate broker as well as bail bondsman, King was a staunch Republican and differed publicly with several black political leaders, including the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

In 1973, King ran unsuccessfully for the 10th District council seat vacated by Bradley.

But King also moved easily among politicians who shared his views, including late City Council President John Ferraro and former Gov. Pete Wilson, and was among the few blacks on the California Central Republican Committee and a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

King was a defender of former Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams, saying that businessmen and other civilians should spend more money to enhance the LAPD and hire more private security guards to combat urban violence.

"Willie Williams is a great police chief, but we've sent him to do war with a cap pistol," King said on April 21, 1994, after he was kidnapped, robbed and assaulted.

King, who sustained a concussion and several broken bones in his right hand before he was released by his assailant in Koreatown, had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but was disarmed by the attacker.

As a bail bondsman, he normally carried thousands of dollars in cash.

Throughout his long career as an activist, King stressed that good race relations depended on the equal availability of education, jobs and housing. King himself had four college degrees in business and law.

He served as an officer of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit of the Army Air Corps, during World War II, but because of discrimination, never saw combat.

"We were very discouraged, because we kept preparing ourselves to go, but the bell never rang [for black bomber pilots]," he told The Times on Memorial Day 1996.

"We really thought it would enhance the positions of black Americans to get into combat," he said. "We knew that historically, each time there had been a war, there had been a little improvement in blacks' lives in this country."

He later became a brigadier general in the California National Guard.

In 1997, when CORE observed its 55th anniversary, King discussed the organization's progress with The Times.

He said that, although the group's demonstrations and other activities led to significant changes in the 1960s and '70s, different methods must be utilized today.

"I do not see that the picket lines surrounding establishments or a lot of those things are going to play a major role," he said.

"Our major role has got to be education. Because today, so many of the problems we're running into are very sophisticated ... more subtle.

"One of the major challenges of today is to create a more civil society. We should learn to be more courteous, more respectful of each other, and we should learn to help each other."

King is survived by his wife of 62 years, Anita Lugo King; two sons, Celes IV and Toby; his daughter and seven grandchildren. Another daughter, Tonnita Renson, preceded him in death.

Funeral services are pending.

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