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Mr. Colbert I. King: U.S. Executive Director and Pulitzer Prize Winner

Colbert King

The author, Bertha F. Wilson, is an archivist at the World Bank Group Archives in Washington, DC where she has worked for 24 years. As a member of the Archives’ Access to Information team, she works with external researchers to facilitate access to the Bank’s historical records. In this article, her fourth contribution in a series that celebrates Black History Month, Bertha focuses on the first U.S. African American Executive Director, Colbert I. King, and the impact he had on the Bank during his tenure.

As an archivist at the World Bank Group Archives, I encounter many historic figures in the pages of the archives.  One of these is Mr. Colbert (Colby) I. King.  Mr. King was the first African American to represent the United States as a World Bank Executive Director (ED) after he was nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.  Prior to his appointment, he served as a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury and had occasion to visit with the World Bank President, Robert McNamara, at a lunch on November 15 the year before his appointment [1].

McNamara daily schedule November 15 1978
President McNamara’s calendar for November 18, 1978; he had lunch with Mr. King, then of the U.S. Treasury (1773180; click to enlarge).
I became interested in Mr. King when I toured the U.S. Executive Director’s offices in August 2010 and noticed his portrait on the wall. I wondered, “who is this brother?” Until that moment, I was under the impression that the then current ED, Ian Solomon, was the first Black U.S. ED. When I returned to my office, I started combing the archives for information about Mr. King.

Mr. King was born in Washington, DC in 1939 and grew up in Foggy Bottom which is, incidentally, the location of the World Bank Group Headquarters. Mr. King’s elementary school, the historic African American Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, constructed in 1868, was the oldest public school in D.C. in operation until it was shuttered in 2008 [2]. I was excited to learn that Mr. King and I both attended Francis Junior High School and Howard University. He graduated from Howard University in 1961 with a degree in government and I was a Howard student during his tenure as Executive Director from 1979 to 1981. Also, my mother and Mr. King graduated from the same high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and my great-niece is currently a Dunbar honor roll student.

Mr. King officially took the role of U.S. ED on December 21, 1979.  As U.S. ED, he was a very prominent figure in Board discussions; this was particularly the case in the early months of 1981. At this time, the world of development economics was in flux as it navigated an ongoing worldwide recession and the new Reagan administration that had just taken office in the United States. The World Bank Group was at a transitional point with long-time president Robert McNamara about to retire, a new focus on structural adjustment financing emerging, and, significantly, questions intensifying about the effectiveness of the International Development Association (IDA). During this period, Mr. King served as a key voice both in how he represented his country's interests and in consensus building within the Board of Executive Directors. This was especially true during the days surrounding the January 27 and 28 Board meetings of the World Bank Executive Directors.

McNamara office
President Robert S. McNamara’s office, June 17, 1981 (1800737).
The archival records show that Mr. King was consulting heavily with the Bank’s senior leadership during this time. According to President McNamara’s calendar entries for January and February 1981, he and Mr. King engaged via telephone on 23 occasions and met in person 5 times, including a meeting with Mr. Moeen Qureshi, then Senior Vice President of Finance.

Mr. King’s role at the Board Meetings in early 1981 was impactful because he set the tone and framed the discussions on the role of the World Bank in the 1980s. Many of the topics he discussed were included in the summary of issues and questions raised by the Executive Directors [3]. Mr. King was a key participant in discussions concerning the IBRD/IDA Lending levels [5], financing IDA’s sixth replenishment (IDA VI), and the Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) Second Bougouriba Agricultural Development Project [4].

Meeting of Executive Directors February 24, 1981
Board of Directors, February 24, 1981 (click to enlarge and view seating chart).
Mr. King made a connection between the importance of IDA and the intense investments needed in developing countries by leveraging the discussion to approve the Second Bougouriba Agricultural Development Project. At a Board of Directors meeting on January 28th, Mr. King shared a personal conversation he had had with a project team member two years earlier in Burkina Faso, where he said:

“Assuming that the level of external assistance remained relatively the same, if I returned to that very spot ten years later, would conditions be any different. And after a long pause, he said no, and what his 'no'  meant to me was that the needs of Upper Volta -- and I believe we could really apply this to the Upper Voltas of the world are so great and are going unmet in such a large measure that the levels of assistance that we were giving then and that we're giving now, in a sense, only maintains some countries above the level of subsistence.”

Colbert King
Colbert I. King (1838095).
This reflection laid the foundation for Mr. King’s discussion on the reasons why countries might struggle. He concluded that discussions about funding IDA must not be limited to internal debates between the Board and Bank Management. “The question of IDA," he continued, "must be addressed minister to minister and governor to governor, and head of government to head of government, where necessary, because that is one way in which we can promote support for IDA and that is one way in which we can respond to the Upper Voltas of the world.” President McNamara, who had left the meeting earlier, returned to endorse Mr. King’s statement and to urge the EDs to do the necessary work with their constituent governments and make their views on IDA known within the next 48 hours.

In these Board meetings in January 1981, Mr. King addressed the concerns that several Executive Directors had about the status of U.S. participation in financing IDA VI, which precipitated impassioned queries by Mr. King’s Board colleagues. To assuage the fears of the EDs that IDA may be under threat, Mr. King took extra steps to discuss U.S. assistance to IDA VI with his peers in a special session outside the normal Board meetings.

Bank senior management discussions regarding IDA VI took place a week later at the February 2, 1981, President's Council (PC) meeting where McNamara informed his team that the press statements about the threat to IDA VI financing from the US were true. McNamara also mentioned that he and Mr. King were working hard to address the problem with other EDs and senior US officials. The archival records give clues that the next three weeks in February were tense, and that Mr. King was keeping McNamara informed. By February 23, at another President’s Council meeting, McNamara was able to inform his team that the efforts of Mr. King and others had been successful: that the US Administration intended to fulfill its commitments to the Bank and IDA. 

McNamara and Colbert King
President McNamara and Colbert I. King at Mr. King’s last Board Meeting, March 10, 1981 (1802121).
The next month, on March 31, Mr. King resigned from his post at the World Bank Group to become executive vice president of the Middle East and Africa divisions at Riggs National Bank. He joined the editorial board of the Washington Post in 1990 where he started writing a weekly column in 1995 which he still writes today and in 2000, King was appointed deputy editor of the Washington Post editorial page. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for his against-the-grain columns that speak to people in power with ferocity and wisdom." 

In his farewell remarks to the Board in the spring of 1981 (captured in the April 1981 issue of the Bank’s internal newsletter, Bank Notes), Mr. King recounts his youth growing up in a segregated Washington, DC where it was against the law for him to attend a certain school, sit at a drug store lunch counter, or enter a movie theater because he is Black. My mother shared similar experiences in DC and vowed never to shop at certain stores even after integration because we were not welcome. In 21st century Washington, DC, I have experienced this unwelcomeness in certain spaces but, like Mr. King, I forge ahead and claim my place.   


A list of publications and a selection of other related resources, some of which have been used to write this article, is available here. Footnotes are indicated by the corresponding number preceding the citation information.