ted king: a civil rights hero
The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, The Black Panthers, the NAACP.
These groups often come to mind when we think of civil rights organizations. Yet, we often forget about similar organizations and the important work they did in Alberta and across Canada. Organizations like the Coloured Protective Associations, Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, Coloured Canadian Industrial Association and the AAACP - Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
These are organizations that contributed to our civil rights history and fought for the rights of Black Canadians. However, their history is often hidden with their contributions unknown by the general public.
This is the story of one of those organizations and their fight for racial justice. This is the story of Ted King, the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and a civil rights case that challenged segregation in Alberta.
Ted King grew up in Calgary and worked professionally as an accountant. He was also a veteran of the second World War. His parents were John and Stella King and his sister, Violet King, was the first Black lawyer in Alberta.
In 1959, King was President of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. He was also head of the grievances committee, responsible for addressing complaints of racial discrimination.
According to King, the purpose of the AAACP was to, “promote goodwill and to seek equality in social and civic activities throughout Alberta.” This was done by fighting against discrimination along with hosting social events for the provinces Black community.
King’s process for resolving complaints was simple. He would first contact those accused of racial injustice, explain who he is, and see if the problem could be resolved informally. If not then he would “seek support from some of the important citizens here in Calgary and some of the associations that [they] belong to.” This shows that the AAACP was an effective force for social change and had considerable power.
On May 13, 1959 King was trying to get hold of a record player and asked his friend Harvey Bailey if he knew where he could find one. Bailey responded by saying that his friend Jim Pelly had a player and may be staying at the Barclay’s Motel.
King then called the motel and asked for Jim Pelly. John Barclay, owner of the hotel, picked up the phone and denied that anyone by that name was staying there. King then started describing his car but Barclay was insistent - there was no Jim Pelly. Confused, King then described Pelly as a “coloured fellow.”
Barclay responded by saying that, “we don’t allow coloured people here.”
King, surprised by this admission, asked, “what?”
Barclay replied with, “you heard me” and hung up.
King then hopped in his De Soto and drove to the motel. Where he encountered John Barclay and asked for a room.
John Barclay then replied, “I am sorry but we are all filled up.”
King countered, “That’s funny, there is a vacancy sign outside.”
Barclay replied saying it was a mistake. In response, King pulled out his AMA membership since Barclay had an AMA sign outside. He asked if Barclay would honour it but Barclay simply said, “No.”
He then asked if the motel allowed coloured people. Barclay questioned why he was asking. It was at this point that King notified him that he was the person who he spoke on the phone with previously. King also identified him as the President and Grievance Committee Chair of the AAACP.
Barclay said, “since you ask, no, we don’t.”
King then asked if Barclay was the manager and he said, “I am the owner, and get out.”
Barclay then placed his hands on King with King saying. “Don’t put your hands on me. We are leaving, I am going to call the AMA about this and I will be back.”
After this encounter, King and Bailey discussed what happened and what options they had available. They decided to publicize their encounter in the local media and launch a legal challenge against Barclay’s discrimination.
Lawyer C.A.G. Palmer was hired by King while Barclay chose to hire R.G. Couch. Palmer submitted the statement of claim on King’s behalf requesting damages for his denial. Their claim was based on the Innskeeper act that said a Innskeeper was required to serve all travelers who request lodging.
Couch responded by denying “each and every claim” presented by King. In addition, he denied that Barclay’s was covered by the Innkeeper act since an Inn was required to serve food - which Barclay’s did not. They also denied that King was a ‘traveller’ since he had a home in Calgary. At this point, both parties were examined by the others lawyer.
Couch largely based his questioning on King’s demeanor and whether or not Barclay felt threatened by his presence. The purpose of this was simple - to cast King as the ‘Angry Black Man’ figure and justify his refusal. Below are two excerpts from the King’s examination.
Couch: You weren’t angry in any way over what was said on the phone?
King: On the phone I was annoyed when I heard that he said he didn’t allow coloured people, but I wasn’t angry at that point.
Couch: Did you subsequently get angry?
King: Yes, I was quite angry.
Couch: Would you say your attitude was somewhat demanding?
King: No, I wouldn’t say that, not at the time, because at the time I went out there I didn’t know what his reasons for it. And I found many times in the past that people have what they think are good reasons for not wanting coloured people in their places. But they can’t seem to get through their heads is that what one person does, the rest of the people don’t. And I was quite sure if he said that he didn’t allow coloured people he must have a reason, I wanted to find out what the reason was.
Couch appears to then move away from this line of questioning and moves to asking about relatively mundane details of King’s timeline. Then he asks a question that catches King off guard.
Couch: How big is Mr. Barclay?
King: How big is he?
King: Well, I wouldn’t say he is a large man, I would say he is a rather small man.
Couch: In comparison with you?
King: Yes, in comparison with me he would be, he is about the same height but I imagine he is quite slender.
This additional question stands out to me since it serves no purpose in verifying whether or not King’s account of events were true. Instead, it aims to build on the ‘Angry Black Man’ narrative and to justify the idea that Barclay was intimidated by King.
King’s examination then ended with Couch being unable to show inconsistencies in his account.
As explained above, Barclay denied ‘each and every’ accusation by King. However, as Sarah Hamill - a legal scholar - notes, “the problem for Barclay was that the two most convincing non-racist explanations for his refusal were unavailable for him.” The two reasons are as follows:
King’s license plate. According to Barclay, he chose to deny Barclay partly because he was not a ‘traveler.’ However, the questioning would reveal that Barclay did provide accommodation for locals.
King was there to visit prostitutes. According to Barclay, two “undesirable” women were occupying a room at the hotel. If Barclay suspected that King was visiting these women then he would have grounds to refuse him entry. However, this presented a catch-22 for Barclay. As Hamill notes, “Prostitution and Alberta motels may have had a close association, but it was always strictly unofficial, and Barclay could not admit to knowing or suspecting that these women were prostitutes.” Doing so would open him up to legal challenges.
The examination by King’s lawyer, Palmer, also poked a number of holes in Barclay’s story. As noted above, King was told that there was no vacancy. The truth was later revealed in the questioning.
Barclay: Mr. King came in and said, “I want a room.” As a rule people ask, “Have you a room.” He said, ‘I want a room.” I said, “i have no room.” He said --
Palmer: If you would just stop there. When you said you had no room that was not, in fact, true was it?
Barclay: No, no, no
Palmer: Go on?
Barclay: But it was a good excuse.
Palmer continues pushing this line of questioning and attempts to find out why Barclay felt that King was belligerent. The reasoning turned out to be relatively mundane.
Palmer: Apart from having use the words, “I want a room,” was there anything belligerent in Mr. King’s attitude before you said you had no vacancy?
Barclay: Yes. When people come in, “I want a room.” I think it is belligerent.
Palmer: You think that just those words constitute belligerency?
Barclay: In my opinion, people as a rule are polite.
Personally, it is quite surreal that anyone would believe that Barclay was threatened by King based on him simply asking for a room. Regardless, Barclay and his lawyer attempted to justify their refusal by relying on old racist stereotypes of Black men.
In addition, they heavily relied on Barclay being exempt from the ‘Innskeeper Act’ and that King not being considered a ‘traveller’ because he had a home in Calgary. These technicalities would form the basis for the court's decision.
On April 7, 1960, the case was decided by Judge Hugh Farthing of the Southern Alberta District Court. Farthings first job was to review both examinations and to decide which was more convincing. In regards to that, Farthing said:
“I am convinced of the sincerity of the Plaintiff in his desire to tell the truth. Defendant admitted that when he told Plaintiff the motel was fully occupied he knew it was not true. He gave his evidence with less confidence than Plaintiff, but this should not necessarily weigh conclusively against any witness. However, as to the conversations and events on the evening in question, I would accept the Plaintiff's version rather than the Defendant’s.”
However, these facts would not matter since Farthing would base his decision on technicalities within the Innskeeper Act. Farthing ruled that since Barclay’s Motel served no food then it was not considered an ‘Inn.’ Thereby, King was not protected by the legislation. In addition, despite Barclay’s allowing local residents, the judge ruled that King was not a ‘traveller’ and had ‘no right to accomodation.”
Farthing dismissed the case.
King appealed the decision to the Alberta Supreme Court with the case being heard on February 14, 1961. The court maintained the ruling with all judges deciding that King was not a ‘traveller.’ In addition, four out of five judges upheld that Barclay’s did not qualify as an Inn because it did not serve food.
Oddly enough, the Judges took the unusual step to express their displeasure of King’s “attempt to use the courts to effect social change.”
Despite losing the case, King was able to make an impact. In 1961, the Alberta Legislature closed the loophole in the Innkeepers act by eliminating the requirement of an Inn offering food. In addition, they added a section to the legislation that said a motel could only remove a guest if they were “causing a disturbance.”
The publicity of King's case along with the legislative changes meant that Black people would no longer be refused lodging due to the colour of their skin. If that were to happen then they could simply bring their case to the court and win thanks to the loopholes that King exposed.
King’s case follows a long legacy of Black-Canadians standing up for racial justice. On reflection, I can understand why most Canadian's may have not heard of Ted King. For starters, our civil rights history is buried with primary sources being difficult to find along with a lack of images to showcase this history.
For example, the American civil rights movement is well documented. When you think of American discrimination you probably think of photos showing segregated buses, and water fountains. Or perhaps photos showing people bravely standing up against that racial discrimination.
Now consider Canada. We know that Black people faced segregation in bars, theatres, swimming pools, and even hospitals. We also know that numerous Black Canadian’s stood up against these injustices. Yet, can you think of any images that show this resistance?
As a result, making Alberta's civil rights history easily accessible and vivid is a personal goal of mine. In King's case, this involved spending hours at the archives in order to describe the case so it was easily understandable. In addition, finding photos to show who King was along with the AAACP.
In my opinion, easily accessible material will be what makes this history more well known. For example, the general public knew almost nothing about Viola Desmond up until a few years ago. This only changed with a public education campaign in the form of a heritage minute, educational material geared towards youth, and her being depicted on our $10 bill.
Anyways, I want to close with some words from David Divine - a noted Black Canadian scholar.
"Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia, Hugh Burnett in Dresden Ontario, Ted King in Calgary: they all insisted on their rights, they all demonstrated great sense of dignity and their commitment to justice. In the process they changed the law of Canada, not for just themselves and for the black community but for all Canadians. The human rights legislation we have in place today, including the charter of rights and freedoms, owes its origin in great part to the refusal of courageous African Canadians to accept anything less than first class citizenship.”