50 years of vigilance

Raleigh's Cy King and wife Carolyn have spent a lifetime pursuing peace

Staff WriterSeptember 10, 2009 

At noon on the first Wednesday of each month, Cy King has an appointment to keep.

The 86-year-old stalwart arrives at the downtown Raleigh post office on Fayetteville Street, props up his chair and grabs a handful of fliers with pie charts showing how much the U.S. government spends on weapons.

Though his back hurts and he frequently resorts to sitting in a folding lawn chair, he's not about to give it up.

For one hour, he and an aging band of liberals line the sidewalk protesting the arms race and handing out pamphlets. King wasn't among the founders of the Committee to Reverse the Arms Race, which began its downtown vigil 27 years ago, but he's been among its most loyal participants.

This month, King and his wife, Carolyn, who often joins him, will be inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame. Their contributions to the city are many, but their shared lifetime pursuit is singular: peace.

The Kings, and Cy in particular, have been fixtures at rallies and protests for more than 50 years. Whether it's civil rights, economic justice, prison reform or the abolition of the death penalty, the two have been there.

"I don't know anybody who has put as much energy into various peace and justice organizations," said Collins Kilburn, retired director of the N.C. Council of Churches and a close friend.

A Southern gentleman, unfailingly polite even when he strongly disagrees with people, King is uncomfortable in the limelight. He and Carolyn were recently honored by the N.C. Council of Churches with its Distinguished Service Award, and they don't quite know what to do with the accolades.

"I'm counting on you to bring me down, a bit, or a lot," he told a reporter recently.

But it's hard to find fault with King, who prefers to work behind the scenes, encouraging, mobilizing, organizing, lobbying. Ever since the couple moved to Raleigh and joined the United Church, now called the Community United Church of Christ, in 1952, they have dedicated their lives to a vision of what could be.

King said a friend once reproached him, saying, "The problem with you, Cy, is that you show up to all the demonstrations."

"Well," King replied. "Which one do you want me to give up?"

A personal mission

On a recent Sunday morning, King sat behind a card table with a stack of yellow legal pads filled with his carefully handwritten script. As a dozen people took their seats in the all-purpose room at Community United Church of Christ, King reviewed his notes.

Though he is not an academic -- he was the acquisitions librarian at N.C. State University -- King approaches the peace movement with the precision of a scholar.

During the Sunday morning talk, he introduced his small audience to the history of the peace movement in the United States by apologizing for not being able to trace it back to America's earliest settlers, the Indians.

"No doubt there was one, or probably many, but I can't start there," he said.

However studious King's approach, it is also personal. His grandfather fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy but ended up championing the defeat of slavery after he was taken in by a Quaker family in Indiana. He later became a Quaker minister.

King's father, Edward, worked for the YMCA and was an early proponent of equal rights for blacks at a time when it was not popular.

Cy King, who graduated from Broughton High School and UNC-Chapel Hill, was also passionate about civil rights even though he was not always a pacifist. When drafted for World War II, King served in the 26th infantry division and fought in the major German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.

It was the last war he would ever support.

"I don't understand why anyone who experiences war is not a peacenik," he said.

Integration pioneers

King met Carolyn at a YMCA conference center in Western North Carolina, and they wed in 1948.

They joined the United Church because each winter it held integrated Monday night programs -- a novelty. Those dinners and talks attracted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among others.

Later the couple worked to integrate vacation Bible school with a predominantly black church and supported an integrated low-income housing project in the Method neighborhood, where Carolyn helped organize a children's day care center.

But one of what the Kings consider their greatest accomplishments came in 1982 when the Raleigh City Council passed an ordinance that required the city manager to write to the president each year asking for a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. The ordinance was retired with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

These days, the Kings have slowed down a bit. Cy used to play tennis twice week but has given it up. Carolyn is battling cancer.

But if there's an injustice anywhere, they'll find a way to get involved. Most recently, they have considered demonstrating against Barack Obama, whom they voted for, because of his support for the war in Afghanistan.

"Wars have just gotten worse," King said. "More civilians are killed than soldiers. What we spend on the military we don't spend on human needs."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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