For Ester King, the cauldron of social change that marked his coming of age led to more than four decades on the front lines of protests and progressive organizing. As he grew older, found a career, married and had children, the movement of his youth became the calling of his life.
A founder of the National Black United Front, he relentlessly organized and agitated until an episode of cardiac arrest in mid-August. King, 68, died Thursday.
“From the ’60s to 2011, there was barely a progressive movement that took place that did have the involvement and leadership of Ester King,” said longtime friend and fellow Houston activist Omowale Luthuli-Allen. “I’m going to miss his intellectual brilliance, his unceasing devotion to peace and freedom and I’m going to miss the steadfastness that he had to encourage the community to have a backbone.”
Ester Lee King was born June 26, 1943, in Magnolia Springs to Vergie Mae and David King. He was raised in Houston’s Acres Homes and graduated from Carverdale Junior-Senior High School in the Cypress-Fairbanks district in 1962.
Of the many writings King left behind is this explanation about his initial interest in social justice: “There was one incident that really caught my attention, the Emmett Till lynching in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was my age, on vacation with relatives in a rural farming town just like Magnolia Springs. As I looked at that infamous picture of his coffin-enclosed corpse (almost recognizable as human) in Jet Magazine, I learned to my utter horror that lynching was not reserved for adults.”
Army and college
King attended Bishop College in Dallas, left to join the Army and later enrolled at Texas Southern University to become a social activist, his daughter, Tandiwe Kone, said.
During college, he traveled the South to understand the conditions causing the brewing civil rights movement. King credited TheAutobiography of Malcolm X for “setting his life on its course” and his “awakening” to questions while a solider abroad about his opinion of the Sharpville Massacre, where dozens of black South Africans had been killed by police. He was unaware of the incident.
“From that point forward, he said he was going to invest the time and energy to discover as much as he could about world conditions, especially what was going on in the black and Pan African diaspora,” Luthuli-Allen recalled.
King worked with a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee affiliate called Friends of SNCC and Afro-Americans for Black Liberation. His later involvements included SHAPE Community Center and the Million Man March.
“We have lost a GPS system, a map, an address book, a telephone book and a history book all in one. He had an amazing ability to recall dates and facts – not just to recite them, but for practical application for freedom and justice,” Kone said. “My father’s overall goal was for peace, justice and equality for all people everywhere.”
Known for his booming voice, King was a regular commentator on KPFT Houston radio programs including Pan African Journal, Connect the Dots and Self Determination.
He cast a wide net of alliances, including with the Hispanic and Palestinian communities, and once ran for Houston City Council.
King supported causes ranging from environmental justice as well as the rights of workers, women, tenants, children and immigrants. He was involved in the Free South Africa movement, anti-death penalty coalitions and efforts to address police use of deadly force.
“He was consistent. Some people were involved when they were young, but he stayed on the front lines and he helped train a whole new generation of organizers and activists in the community,” said Kofi Taharka, national chairman of the National Black United Front. “There are a lot of younger people, like myself, that consider him a mentor and adviser. He dedicated his life to the liberation of African- American people and social justice causes for all people.”
King, who also had been a union official, retired in 2008 after 26 years as a boilermaker at Dunn Heat Exchangers in Texas City.
In addition to his daughter, King was deeply devoted to his wife of 41 years, Leallia King, a son,Ahmed Sekou Toure King, and two grandchildren. Arrangements are being handled by Mabrie Memorial Mortuary, 5000 Almeda. Services are pending.