BY: Brooks Marmon
As the 1930s drew to a close, it was evident that Liberia was in crisis. A League of Nations report (issued by a Commission composed of a black American sociologist, a former Liberian president, and a British explorer) implicated the country’s President and Vice President in the recruitment and shipment of forced labor to Equatorial Guinea, Spain’s lone African colony. President Charles Dunbar Burgess (C.D.B.) King and Vice President Allen Yancy resigned in apparent disgrace, although their willingness to leave power was seen as a face saving gesture that placated the European powers and persuaded them to drop their efforts to make Liberia a ward of the League of Nations.
Many of the events at this time remain murky, such as why the Secretary of State (who happened to be the nephew of the Liberian on the Commission) ascended to the Presidency following the resignations rather than the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as stipulated by the constitution. What a cursory examination of C.D.B. King’s subsequent career does show however, is that the episode reflected an independent streak of Liberians and the ruling True Whig Partythat European colonial powers could not readily stamp out.
The irony of a League of Nations report criticizing Liberian labor practices is obvious. King Leopold’s well known atrocities in the Congo were a recent memory and most of the continent was controlled by European colonial powers, whose very raison d’être was predicated on the exploitation of Africa’s human and natural resources. The hypocrisy of the accusations was blatant and perhaps fittingly, President King died three decades later an elder statesman, not in disgrace as one would expect a head of state forced out of office prematurely.
William V.S. Tubman, who became the second President of Liberia in 1944 following King’s resignation, moved quickly to rehabilitate the former President of Sierra Leonean heritage who had represented Liberia at the Paris Peace Conference. In 1947, an elderly King became Liberia’s first ambassador in the US and held that position for five years. His son was also a member of Liberia’s diplomatic corps and his granddaughter was much more recently Liberia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for several years under the Sirleaf administration.
A few months before his death in 1961, C.D.B. King, who the European and American media had painted as a disgrace to African indignity several decades earlier, hosted a formal dinner in honor of the recently concluded Monrovia Conference that brought together heads of state and high level representatives from approximately 20 newly independent nations. Less than a hundred days later, Tubman eulogized King, lamenting “the loss of a noble, experienced, tested and tried statesman.” Monrovia mourned King extensively. Tributes by both President Tubman and Vice President Tolbert graced the front page of Liberian newspapers. He received a series of 21 gun salutes and church bells chimed tirelessly, for several minutes each hour while his body lay in state.
While King held several dubious distinctions, including the Guinness world record for victor of the most fraudulent election, he was blamed for being a product of his time. Even Charles Johnson, the American sociologist whose role in the Christy Commission led to King’s resignation praised his sharp and shrewd mind. The political resurrection of C.D.B. King in his twilight years and the honor he was accorded upon his death reflected the Liberian determination to undermine unjust western pressures at every opportunity.