Celes King IV, 1943 – 2014: Always on the Go

The son of legendary South Los Angeles bail bondsman Celes King IV was a master community advocate in his own right.

King doesn't have a bail agent's license. His sister and his niece operate the bond business, but he knows the pathway through the criminal justice system, inside and out.

Celes King IV pictured in 2013. | Matt Hamilton

He walked with a slow gait, but Celes King IV — the South Los Angeles community advocate who died March 15 of heart failure — was always on the go.

“Can we schedule a time to meet tomorrow?” I asked him last spring, when I was profiling him for class.

“Tomorrow I’ll be in Sacramento at a protest in the morning,” he told me. “I’ll be there for the rest of the week.”

A deadline loomed, so at midnight, I hopped in my station wagon and made the 400-mile drive – a route Celes made at least once a week.

Read Matt Hamilton’s profile of Celes from last year on Intersections: South L.A.’s man in Sacramento

On the steps of the Capitol in the morning, he greeted me, wearing a white suite with cyan-hued leather shoes. Our day began.For the next eight hours, I followed him through the pea green terrazzo-floored corridors of the Capitol as he hobnobbed with Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, strategized with State Sen. Curren Price’s legislative director, Reggie Fair, and badgered Kathy Lynch, the lobbyist for the state bail industry.

When he had a free window of time — even just 20 minutes — he’d pop into a committee meeting, scan the agenda and see if there was a cause worth his time. During the day, he worked on issues related to bail industry rules, victims’ rights, healthcare and education — mindful of how the legalese of policy would play out in the community, especially in South L.A.

“In Sacramento, there just isn’t a lot of advocacy for communities like South Central,” he said, as he spoke up for a bill that would allow nonprofits to continue holding bingo fundraisers. “Even though you hear a lot of rhetoric,” he said, “when it comes to going where things that impact on a statewide basis, you just don’t see the faces and you don’t hear the noise.”

Back in L.A., Celes was known as a fierce advocate, going head-to-head with the school board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Metro officials and area politicians.

“When the issue was the fight against injustice, discrimination and inequality, King IV was always on the frontline,” said Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Celes King-portrait

Celes King IV standing on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Denker Avenue in South Los Angeles in 2013, outside the bail bond shop started by his parents in 1947. | Matt Hamilton

No politician was immune from his criticism, and he utilized back-door politicking and public comments with equal gusto to let his voice be heard. Two months before he died, Celes penned this blistering op-ed on Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Transportation activist Damien Goodmon called Celes a mentor and friend and praised his insights on leadership, politics and strategy.

“He was always planning 10 steps ahead of you,” Goodmon said. “Celes had an amazing ability to see an issue and to lend his clout to support it.”

Tina Allen's sculpture of Celes King III sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, the starting point for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

Tina Allen’s sculpture of Celes King III sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, the starting point for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. | Matt Hamilton

That clout was largely inherited from his father, Celes King III, who opened King Bail Bonds in 1947 after civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was arrested. Bail bondsmen wouldn’t post bail for Rustin — or any blacks — so Celes’ father and mother, Anita Lugo King, became the preeminent bail agency of the civil rights movement.

These L.A. “Kings” rubbed elbows with the “Memphis Kings” — Martin Luther and Coretta Scott, who even advised the younger Celes that he should attend her alma mater, Antioch College.

And black celebrities of all stripes, like Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, passed through family’s other business, the Dunbar Hotel on 42nd Place and Central Avenue.

As drawn to politics as Celes was — and like his father, he sided more with Republicans than Democrats — his active involvement in policy came later. For much of his life, he bounced around the U.S., opening restaurants in the Midwest and a transit service in Florida. It took him 19 years to finish his college degree. He married, fathered five children and divorced.

He came back to L.A. when his parents fell ill. After they died — months apart in 2003 — he rejected the family legacy of combining bail bond work with community advocacy. But at his sister Teri King’s insistence, he stepped up into their shoes. He didn’t have a bail agent’s license (King and his niece run the business), but he regularly sat behind the desk at King Bail Agency, answering calls, checking in with neighbors, and helping customers with any of the myriad non-bail related needs that cropped up.

King Bail Bonds, 1530 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

“We’re a general services agency,” Celes joked once, as he helped an elderly woman who was confused by the power-of-attorney process.

Paula Aliewine, a longtime family friend whose family runs the Watts/Willowbrook Christmas Parade, was more blunt. With Celes, she always knew, “he was going to make it happen.”

What energized the last three years of Celes’ life was the October 2011 passage of AB 109, California’s plan to reduce the prison population by moving low-level offenders to county jails, also known as realignment.

He feared that the bill would make communities less safe, and he feared for the future of the family’s principal enterprise. Since AB109 was enacted, business had fallen more than 45 percent at the bail bond agency, he told me.

But perhaps what he feared most was that declining revenue would hamper his family’s ability to sustain charitable works, including support for the Kingdom Day Parade on Martin Luther King Day.

Celes, 70, died during heart surgery at a hospital in San Diego, according to Adrian Dove, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and a family friend.

On Tuesday, his sister Teri King said she was still “shocked” by his abrupt passing, a response echoed by friends and colleagues. But I was reminded of what King told me last year, when she recounted persuading him to join her in running the family enterprise of business-cum-advocacy.

“I don’t want just your suggestions,” King told her brother in 2003. “I want your mind, your spirit, your soul. We need it all.”

Indeed, he gave it all.

The first of several memorials took place yesterday. The family is also holding a memorial service Saturday, March 29 at 11 a.m. at the Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church located at 3751 W. 54th Street.

Click play on a story from Annenberg Radio News to hear voices of Celes King IV’s friends and family from yesterday’s memorial:

Celes King IV’s family is inviting those who knew him to share memories and stories about how he “touched your life” on his website, celesking.com.

Speak Your Mind