by Harold C. Ford
“Get out there and make a damn difference.” –Jacky King, Dec. 2017, STAND Magazine
The greater Flint area, the Beecher community in particular, lost a genuine hero on Dec. 13, 2018 with the passing of Jacky King. King, 65, succumbed to a year-long battle with brain cancer.
Community activist, entrepreneur, Hall of Fame martial artist, urban farmer, Mt. Morris Township trustee, and mentor to thousands of Flint-area children, King was laid to rest Friday, Dec. 21 following what Pastor Patrick W. Sanders Sr. called a “celebration” of his life at the New Jerusalem Full Gospel Baptist Church in the Beecher community.
King, born in 1953, spent the first 10 years of his life in Middletown, Ohio. He lived with 16 other family members, including his mother Catherine “Cat” King, in a house headed up by “Momma Beatrice,” his grandmother. He would not know until the fourth decade of his life that his biological father was a man who lived in the very same Middletown neighborhood, Floyd Mack.
Neighborhood children were drawn to Mack and his ability to play the piano. He would pull young Jacky onto the piano bench with him and declare, “You and me are buddies.” One of Jacky’s aunts eventually revealed to him his deeper connection to the piano player.
Mack finally confirmed his fatherhood to King and the two of them established a short-term relationship until the elder’s death in 1997. That personal history likely helped fuel King’s passion for mentoring youth as revealed in a lengthy and revealing interview with STAND magazine’s David Stanley in Dec. 2017:
“I got to teach the boys how to be young men, so many of them don’t have dads or uncles to teach them, and I got to teach the girls how to be women that know how to say no.”
Move to Flint:
King came to Flint in 1963 with his mother and two brothers. It wouldn’t be farfetched to conclude that King stayed in trouble throughout his teenage years while running the streets of Flint. King’s Achilles heel were the thousands of shiny, expensive cars that choked the thoroughfares of the Vehicle City.
“I just wanted to ride around in fast cars—joyriding we called it back then,” he confided to STAND Magazine. “Find one with the keys in it, or one of my buddies might know how to hot-wire a car, they were lots simpler back then – and we’d drive around for a while, leave the car, and run away. You do that often enough, and sure enough, the police will catch up with you.”
The police caught up with King plenty of times throughout the decade of the 1960s. King repeatedly found himself in and out of incarceration: Boys Farm near Howell, Mich.; a juvenile detention facility in Lansing, Mich.more than once. A subsequent B&E (breaking and entering) sent him off to Jackson State Prison for 18 months.
“I was almost 18 when I went in,” he recollected. “I was 19 when I got out. I had nothing. No job, no diploma or GED, no skills, not one damn thing.” But two things were about to turn King’s life around: martial arts and Dora Blake.
King came upon martial arts in a Grand Blanc auto factory in 1973 when he saw one of his GM workmates, Percy Dunn, karate kicking. He asked how he could learn to do that, so Dunn introduced him to his martial arts instructor, Robert Anderson of Mt. Morris.
“That was the turning point in (his) life,” according to Dora King, his partner and wife of 33 years. “Karate gave him purpose,” she said in a recent interview with East Village Magazine.
“God was talking to me,” he told STAND in 2017. “I have not missed a day in the dojo since, unless I was sick or traveling. I wasted so much of my youth, bad choices, acting out, refused to listen, didn’t learn to respect or be respected, for years it made me sick how I lived… All that was solved when I went into a dojo.”
Dora Blake of Walled Lake and King met by happenstance at a party in Clarkston in the mid-1980s, hugged one another, and spent the next 33 years of their lives together. According to Dora, “I felt the warmth; he felt the warmth. The spark was immediate.”
Dora and Jacky were married in 1987. While it was virtually love at first sight for the new couple, that was not the case for Dora’s family, especially her father. Bobby Blake had family roots that extended back to West Virginia and possessed a cowboy persona from top to bottom.
According to Dora, her father said to Jacky, “Young man, I want you to know this is a bitter pill to swallow, but I’m hoping it gets sweeter on the way down.” And it did. By the time Dora’s father passed, “Jacky considered him dad,” she said. “My father loved me enough to understand that I loved Jacky.”
So this very black man and this very white woman looked past their differences and pledged to help raise one another’s children as if their own. They decided never to use the term ‘stepchildren’ when referencing any of their five children—three from Jacky and two from Dora.
“His children were my children; my children were his children,” she said.
Instead of marking “black” or “white” on application forms, they committed to writing “human race” in spaces that asked for racial identity. Dora’s eldest biological son, Larry, changed his last name to King to honor his loving relationship with Jacky.
In search of a dojo:
Jacky hated the restrictive environment of an auto factory; it reminded him of prison. Jacky quit the factory while Dora bought into the martial arts lifestyle. Together they kicked around Flint seeking to start a dojo, a martial arts studio.
They established one small dojo after another in several Flint locations. They taught out of schools and community centers. They started small storefront dojos on Stockdale Street, on Pasadena Avenue, near the corner of Chevrolet Avenueand Flushing Avenue, and on Knickerbocker Street in the Beecher community. Sometimes they lived in their cramped dojos. They even lived in a motel.
In fact, it was motel living that intensified Jacky’s search to establish a more permanent martial arts business and find a more satisfactory home. Dora’s father was coming to town to visit the couple and Jacky did not want his father-in-law to discover they were living in a motel on Miller Road.
Planting roots in Beecher:
Jacky boarded a bus, exited on Saginaw Street in the Beecher community, and started walking in search of an opportunity. He came upon a for sale sign on the front of a building at 5339 N. Saginaw St. that read, “See Bill next door at Catfish Corners.” Jacky went to see Bill and struck a tentative deal to buy the building.
In search of funds to complete the purchase, he struck another deal with the father of one of his martial arts students. He offered the father’s son lessons for life in exchange for several hundred dollars with which he made a down payment to purchase the Storey Plumbing building.
The building on Saginaw Street was far from being ready to open for business as it needed considerable remodeling. So Jacky enrolled in a construction class and struck another deal when he convinced the instructor that on-the-job remodeling of the plumbing store would be the best lessons he could offer the students in his class. Thus began King Karate.
And over time the Kings nurtured and expanded King Karate. After living in the dojo for a year, they built on to the small house in back of the dojo and made it their permanent home. In the years that followed, thousands of Flint-area students were trained at the dojo and at numerous other locations. The dojo is chock full of trophies, awards, and mementos as testament to the Kings’ success over some three decades.
It occurred to the Kings that something was missing in their design for teaching healthy lifestyles: healthy eating. The idea was sparked when nearby neighbors asked if King Karate students, as part of their community service requirement, could help clean up vacant lots that had been dumped on for decades. The Kings were all in.
The task was enormous, according to Stephen Arellano, then a program manager for the Ruth Mott Foundation. His comments were captured in a short documentary film, The Kings of Flint, produced by the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University:
“This was removing the trash form the site, and then removing the trash from the site, and then removing the trash from the site, and then removing the trash from the site, and then tilling in organic soil and growing cover crops.”
The cleanup project was an epiphany for King, who worked daily with youth who witnessed poverty and blight on a daily basis, as he had. “It plays havoc on the mind,” he said. “You take that same place, you fix it up, you put some flowers out there, it brings that hope back.”
“As they (students) came in to study karate,” King said, “we teach them farming because we associate them both together with self defense.”
Within a few years, the Kings’ dream of an urban farming project came to fruition. Three state-of-the-art, 30-by-96 foot greenhouses were built, supported by 40 solar panels, and a rain collection system for providing water to the crops. In 2013, the Kings’ Harvesting Earth Educational Farm (HEEF) became the first urban farm in Genesee County to be certified organic.
The Kings’ urban farming initiative was expanded to include beehives, a chicken coop, and a 200-tree fruit orchard that will provide apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. Support for these projects was provided by, among others, the Ruth Mott Foundation, Kettering University, the Genesee County Land Bank, the Ford Motor Company Fund, and Michigan State University.
In 2011, HEEF was recognized as Michigan Small Farmer of the Year which recognizes farmers for their conservation efforts. It was the first urban farm so named. The Kings were dubbed as “trailblazers” by Terry McLean, MSU Extension food systems educator.
So with the passing of Jacky King, the two “Kings of Flint” have become one. Dora told EVM she plans to continue both the martial arts program and the urban farming project. “Absolutely,” she said. “I know in my heart I couldn’t live with myself otherwise. I’ve committed over 30 years of my life to it.”
She told her husband of her commitment before his passing. “I reassured him many times that our labor would not go on the wayside, that I would continue on this journey, because we’renot finished with this journey.”
King knew full well the beneficiaries of his labor. “They know whose farm this is,” he said in reference to his students.
“Ain’t no way I can take this with me. When they throw my little ol’ body in the casket, what am I going to do? Take all of this and put it in there with me? No. It’s theirs.”
Dora King’s commitment to continue King Karate and Harvesting Earth Educational Farm is daunting. The roof on the dojo is leaking and needs repair. The crops have to be planted, cultivated, and harvested. The greenhouses and the chicken coop need to be maintained. The orchard needs to be maintained and harvested.
For those wishing to help further Jacky King’s legacy, financial contributions and volunteer labor donations can be given in two ways:
- A Go Fund Me site was established online on Dec. 5. As of Dec. 23, $5,470 had been contributed toward a goal of $10,000
- Financial contributions can be made to the nonprofit Youth Karate-Ka Association and mailed to: King Karate, G-5339 N Saginaw St, Flint, MI 48505.
Full disclosure: As a Beecher educator, Harold Ford often partnered with the Kings on various projects. He also served on the nonprofit board of Youth Karate-Ka Association for about a decade—Ed.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.