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Charles King's Students Learn the Pain of Prejudice by Enduring Some of It

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Charles King, a hulking black man wearing a black turtleneck, looms over the white Atlanta journalist he has just ordered to kneel and recite “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When the man finishes, King turns to his class and says, “I have just humiliated him. Why did you let me do it?”

That example—which King uses to demonstrate how whites comply passively in discrimination against blacks—is typical of his shock tactics. A Baptist minister, King, 50, has taught his course in race relations to 11,000 people in the six years since he founded Urban Crisis, Inc. It is a firm whose main business is providing counsel on racial problems to businesses, civic groups and government personnel.

King’s alumni include Atlanta’s mayor, Maynard Jackson, and former local Chamber of Commerce president, Ivan Allen Ill, as well as military officers from the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala. “If I want to see the results of these classes,” he says, “I just read the paper and see what’s happening in the city. I see this article and I say, ‘Uh huh, uh huh—he’s had the course.’ ”

One newspaper story King was not happy to see charged—falsely, it turned out—that he had made an Army colonel crawl around the classroom floor. That report aroused unrest in Washington, where Alabama Sen. James Allen, among others, demanded an investigation. But denials from King, backed by testimonial letters from Mayor Jackson and both Georgia senators, quieted the furor.

The wonder is that more controversy hasn’t been triggered by King’s aggressive and sometimes outrageous behavior. (He propounds, on the basis of scant evidence, that Aesop and Beethoven were black.) Always wearing clothes of black and white, King paces his classroom, berating black students for “Uncle Tomming” when they show any hint of servility to their white classmates and sneering at whites for “shuckin’ and jivin’ ” when they utter soft-core racist cliches. Guaranteed to trigger a King-sized tantrum are such shibboleths as: “You have to admit there has been progress” or “You can turn people off by pushing too hard.”

King, who was born in Pottsville, Pa., has tangled with his own share of discrimination. As a young man he wandered in and out of the military—serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force—and was beaten in 1945 by two Navy shore patrol enlisted men who called him “nigger” and demanded that he call them “Sir.”

While in the Air Force he attended Evansville (Ind.) College, then graduated from Virginia Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and returned to Evansville to serve as pastor for a Baptist church. He became president of the local NAACP chapter and was arrested for disorderly conduct when he protested against a barbershop owner who refused to let his bootblack shine King’s shoes.

Later in Gary, Ind., where he had moved in 1966 to become director of a human relations commission, he filed a discrimination suit against a real estate agency that refused to sell him a house in an all-white neighborhood.

By the time he was named to the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967, he had been arrested seven times in civil rights incidents.

King was teaching black studies at Wittenberg (Ohio) University in 1970 when the Urban Crisis idea grew out of his frustrating inability to communicate the anguish of racism to white students. One day in class, that frustration led him to shout at the students, “God damn it, don’t you see?” When the intensity of that approach seemed effective, he began to consciously use the benevolent antagonism that is the basis of his current course.

He has since given the class throughout the country, always stressing the need to recognize that differences exist. “If you don’t see my color,” he says, “you don’t see me.”

The approach seems to be working. His technique has drawn praise and—so far, at least—not even one punch in the nose from his students.