03/13/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
The one-story house on Lincoln Avenue looks pretty much the same. As does the veranda, where Preston King and his six older brothers often sat with their parents discussing topics ranging from ancient poets to modern black leaders. But nearly everything else about Albany, Ga., has changed since King, 64, last saw it 39 years ago. Once a slumbering southern backwater, it is now a thriving commercial hub. Even more startling to King: Blacks and whites work side by side at the local McDonald's. "That was totally out of the question when I was growing up," he says. "I really feel like Rip van Winkle."
In a sense, he is. In 1961, King fled the U.S. after being convicted of draft evasion by an all-white jury in Albany. Though King, then 25, insisted he was resisting the draft board's racial discrimination and not the draft itself, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Rather than do time, he fled overseas, where, over four decades, he built an academic career on three continents while his family lobbied a succession of Presidents for a pardon. Finally, on Feb. 21, Bill Clinton issued his 146th pardon. "This is a grievous wrong made right," says NAACP chairman Julian Bond, one of many prominent figures who lobbied on King's behalf.
For King, the pardon and ensuing homecoming were bittersweet. During his time abroad, he missed the funerals of both his father, Clennon, a local businessman who founded Albany's first NAACP chapter, and his mother, Margaret. Three brothers—Allen, Slater and C.B., a prominent civil rights lawyer—also died. Each time, King wrote a piece to be read at the funeral. "But of course we wanted him there," says Carol, C.B.'s widow, "and he wanted to be there in the worst way." It was the Feb. 24 burial of his oldest brother, Clennon, that finally brought him home. "I think the President understood the pain of Preston King missing yet one more funeral," says a supporter, former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.
Before King took flight in '61, he had led a remarkable life. The scion of one of Georgia's most prominent black families, he was captain of his high school football team. At 16, he was admitted to Fisk University in Nashville, where the local draft board routinely extended his student deferments after he turned 18. Always, he says, their letters began "Dear Sir" or "Dear Mr. King."
Before leaving for Europe to pursue a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the London School of Economics, King switched his draft registration base to Albany and dropped in to pay a courtesy call. "It was a mistake," he says. "Now they knew I was black." From that day on, all correspondence from the draft board began "Dear Preston." In 1958 he was stunned, and outraged, to hear that his deferment had been canceled. When the draft board ordered King home for a physical, he wrote back saying he would not comply until they addressed him as "Mr." "It was never a question of draft evasion," he says. "This was for me a simple act of civil disobedience." The jury unanimously disagreed.
King taught first in England, then in Ghana, Kenya and Australia. Since 1986 he has been a professor at England's University of Lancaster, where, says student Bryan Carter, "people love and respect him." Along the way, he married and divorced Hazel Stern, a sociologist, with whom he has two children—Oona, 32, a Member of Parliament in England, and Slater, 30, a photographer—then married Raewyn, a public servant, with whom he has a son, Akasi Peter, 5.
On his return to the U.S., King paid a special visit to William Bootle, 97, the judge who sentenced him. Bootle says the trial would have ended the same way if King had been "white as snow." But he adds that if King had been white, "the draft board would have called him 'Mr.' "—and there would have been no case at all.
Gail Wescott in Albany, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Pete Norman in London