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Death of a Bondsman 

Remembering Celes King

Thursday, May 8 2003
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Illustration by Shino Arihara

Sometimes you can pick and choose funerals, almost like weddings, based on rapidly calculated fallout — first cousin’s a must, cousin’s second husband that I saw maybe twice in the last 10 years a maybe — but the funeral of Celes King III prompted for me no such questions. He was indisputably important, a family member to end all family members. Celes, who died April 12 just shy of 80, had been a local doyen of civil rights activism, the first state chairman of the Congress of Racial Equity, but maybe more than that, he was a rare black figure who spanned generations and an array of ideologies and allegiances that spoke both to his genuine open-mindedness, and to the political coherence of another age: a civil rights fighter who was a staunch Republican, a bail bondsman who battled the criminal-justice system, a proud ex-military man — an officer in the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilot squad of World War II — who questioned the moral authority of his country more often than not.

My father had introduced me to Celes when I was a little girl at his cluttered bail-bond office on King Boulevard near Western, which was also a strategy center and must-stop for virtually any politico or activist of note, or not, in town. I didn’t understand this as a child, of course; what I knew was that Celes was Daddy’s good friend, that he was kindly and spirited and, with his thick glasses and generally squarish shape, resembled an owl. Celes’ place felt familiar. It was something like my Uncle Leon’s barbershop a few blocks over on Jefferson — full of men and cigarette smoke and earnest talk, a modest place bustling with mysterious activity that I knew, even at 6 and 7, was much bigger than cutting hair.

I didn’t understand bail bonding, but I knew this was true about Celes’ place because my father took me there. In the ’60s I couldn’t quite fathom what my father’s business was either (consultant for the county’s brand-new Human Relations Commission), but I knew that it was important, that he didn’t discuss business with just anybody, and that he almost never introduced anybody to me as his friend. That Celes King was my father’s friend remained the most crucial fact about him in my mind, and I began considering them alike: tough, principled, compassionate rebels who were comfortable in dark suits but who eternally preferred the camaraderie of the streets to the cloisteredness of high-rises and state capitols and such. They were two kindred roving knights, fiercely of the people but possessed of a higher calling, which made it easier for the masses on the ground to once again believe in the deliverance that, after 150 years or so, hadn’t quite arrived.

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Assuming there’d be too many people wanting to make remarks for the planned 1 p.m. church service to accommodate, organizers set up a platform in Leimert Park for a pre-funeral of sorts, to get a jump on things and let remarks about King be made as publicly as possible (despite never having held office, Celes was unquestionably a public servant). I walked up Degnan and thought about how Leimert has become awfully familiar to anybody who monitors black causes or observances, even casually. A month ago it hosted a black anti-war rally, the month before that a rally to save some storefronts on Degnan, and before that, annual Mardi Gras, Malcolm X and Kwanzaa festivals. Leimert is hardly more than pocket-sized, but it has come to mean much to blacks living within a 10-mile radius of it, whether they show up to its events or not; it has become the geographic and emotional fulcrum upon which South-Central, Crenshaw, Compton, Watts, midtown and Inglewood variously and precariously rest.

It is the place for a community hero to be commemorated, and Celes had shown up in fine style, transported from his office on Western in a horse-drawn carriage like his touchstone and namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. Among Celes’ many accomplishments was spearheading a long but successful effort to rename Santa Barbara Avenue Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That was some 20 years ago; I think of comedian Chris Rock’s somewhat bitter declaration that nearly every street named Martin Luther King in every city in America today is guaranteed to be the most fucked-up street in that city. I wonder if Celes ever heard Chris Rock say this, and what his thoughts on the matter might be.

The crowd paying its respects in Leimert was relatively small, though it boasted a diversity of people I have never seen here before. Partly in acknowledgment of Celes’ bail-bonds business there was lots of law enforcement — here to participate, not patrol, though admittedly it’s hard to tell the difference in these parts — LAPD, Sheriff’s deputies and CHPs who added electric-blue bow ties to an otherwise sober work ensemble. The effect was half comic, half jarring. Sheriff Baca offered a few solemn words to measured but appreciative applause. Nation of Islam guys milled about in bow ties of their own, a Rastafarian lugged a large Ethiopian flag, a contingent from the Brotherhood Crusade — another one of Celes’ enterprises — freshman Councilman Bernie Parks and his wife, Bobbie, who was dressed entirely in yellow. I saw my father, standing characteristically away from the podium, alternately greeting the many people he knows and pacing distractedly. I saw Hal Miller, a lawyer and self-styled historian of local black history, sitting on a bench in a porkpie hat and talking urgently into a cell phone. I was shocked to see Brian Breye, proprietor of Museum in Black down the street and sometime neighborhood crank who usually watches Leimert goings-on from his stoop, dressed formally in black, wearing an embroidered fez instead of his customary baseball cap. He told me he’d spent his morning sweeping up the park, readying it. He looked irritated. “Should’ve been more people out today,” he muttered. “Celes was big. It’s not right.” I replied that I thought it significant that there was a crowd at all and that so many people testified to Celes’ influence and stewardship, but Brian didn’t look convinced.

A woman with a child in tow approached me to say she went to school with one of my cousins. I nodded assent before she got all the words out — I have many cousins, many of whom went to school around here. “I brought my daughter today because I want her to know the history of things,” the woman said, smiling. “Too many young people don’t know our history.” I nodded again, but felt an awful lot like one of those people — I was learning too much about Celes just listening to the speakers’ brief encomiums, learning things I should have known and filed away long ago. I accorded my father’s friend a certain affection and respect, but not enough real recognition of who and what he was. I am the very problem people around me are decrying under their breath. The daughter leaned on her mother and said decisively, “I’m hot, Mama. My hair is hot.”

I laughed in spite of some guilt. It was warm, and people looked a little tired — not of weather, but of this ritual of burying the dead who had mattered so much for so long, of detailing their selflessness and sacrifice and then, away from the microphones and programs, wondering how and whether it could all possibly translate into future battles that grow more visible but feel less winnable as time flows relentlessly from one era to the next. I sighed. Someone in dark glasses from the Nation of Islam came to the podium to proclaim Celes King a man among men. He recalled the civil rights movement and Celes’ part in it. Listening to him out of courtesy, I was suddenly and improbably moved; I straightened and my heart swelled like a flag roiled by the wind. I was hearing a story I’d heard a million times before, but for a single incandescent moment that Saturday it belonged entirely to me, wrapped up and pressed into my palm like money. Like most of the money I’ve had in my life, I don’t exactly know what to do with it. What is certain is that wherever I go from here, I’ll take it with me.

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