William Elisha King, outspoken newspaper editor and community activist, was born in Macon, Noxubee County, Mississippi, possibly on June 7, 1865, to Richard and Margaret King. He was educated at Macon Academy and taught at various schools in the Mississippi counties of Lauderdale and Jasper from 1882 to 1888. In 1888 he became the business manager and editor of Jacob’s Friend in Helena, Arkansas, and a year later cofounded Fair Play in Meridian, Mississippi. He hoped his small newspaper would advance the interests of the race, but Whites violently threatened his life because of his outspoken challenge to racist statements published in an editorial in the Meridian Mercury. King and his associate editor Simmon Jones were forced to hide in nearby Siwasha Creek until moderate Whites and prominent African Americans negotiated a truce that allowed him to return to his editorial post.
King moved to Dallas in 1891 and in 1892 and became the managing editor of the Western Star, a local newspaper published by E. W. D. Isaac, pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church in Dallas. That same year, King published his own paper, the Dallas Bee, and in 1893 changed the name to Dallas Express.
In 1899 King helped organize the Negro Press Association of Texas, and he was elected secretary of the fledgling organization that represented about a dozen African-American newspapers in the state. By the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, King had parlayed his small paper into a success story. The Dallas Express Publishing Company published King’s newspaper and other publications, especially the proceedings of local, state, and national African-American societies and organizations. King also owned the Empire Lodge Hotel, Alhambra Café, and a public stenography service. King briefly ceased publication of the Express newspaper in 1906 and began publishing the Texas Express.
In 1904 King was among the number of Dallas businessmen who helped organize the Dallas Negro Business League. He was a longtime state organizer for the Texas Negro Business League, which was organized in 1907 by Robert L. Smith of Waco. In 1909 King served as Secretary of the National Negro Press Association, an auxiliary of the National Negro Business League (NNBL). Ironically, King was a vocal critic of its founder and longtime president, Booker T. Washington. In June 1903, when Washington made an extended visit to Houston, King excoriated him in the pages of the Dallas Express. King considered Washington’s visit an effort to curry favor among leading Blacks and Whites in Texas for his policies, which King believed amounted to second-class citizenship. He continued to openly agitate for civil liberties and political rights for African Americans. He remained active in the Republican Party and served as a delegate and alternate to the 1900, 1912, and 1916 national Republican conventions. In 1906 he attended the “Black and Tan” Republican convention in Houston.
By the 1910s he likely saw participation in the NNBL as an important, practical factor in the advancement of civil and economic rights for African Americans. As an entrepreneur, he fully supported the NNBL’s “buy Black” ideologies and believed Black business ownership was an important strategy to gain civil rights. As a state organizer, King did not restrict local league membership to business people and professionals but extended it to working class people and farmers in the hopes of building a bridge between African-American labor and business and supporting a broad range of opportunities for Black self-determination.
King helped organize the Dallas NAACP in 1918, but the group dissipated in the early 1920s. He was also a member of the local Abiff Masonic Lodge No. 61, the Knights of Pythias, and the Odd Fellows.
In 1919 King fell from a Dallas streetcar and convalesced in the Flora Street home of a female acquaintance. King’s former girlfriend and personal secretary Hattie Burleson drove to the home on August 20, 1919, and argued with him as he sat down to dinner. She fatally shot King in the upper right chest, fled the scene, but later turned herself in to the police. Dr. O. Roy Busch was called to attend to King, who died that evening, three hours after the shooting. King’s services were held in Dallas, and later he was buried in a plot near his parents and sister in Greenville, Mississippi.