The Rev. Sampson “Skip” Alexander stopped by Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1952 and listened to preaching from Martin Luther King. Not the one whose birthday we’ll be celebrating Monday, but his father. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was still three years off. So when Alexander and his friends went to Ebenezer, he said, “the daddy was the big thing,” not the son.
Alexander says that he and his friends were in Atlanta “pretending to be big preachers from New Orleans.” They were preachers, yes, but Alexander used the word “jackleg” to describe what he actually was. He said Daddy King, as the pastor of Ebenezer was called, told Alexander’s group that his son would be preaching there the next Sunday. He talked him up so that Alexander and his friends decided to return.
Martin Luther King Jr. “wasn’t as dynamic then” as he’d be 11 years later on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Alexander said. “He wasn’t up there yet.” Even so, Alexander said, “You could tell he was a dramatist, like (he’d studied) theater.” And Alexander remembers King’s references to things Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had said. “He did a lot of quoting of history.”
Alexander, 87, who would go on to become the civil right leader’s friend, said their first conversation happened over a meal in the back of Ebenezer after the young minister had preached. Sitting with visitors from New Orleans, King wanted to talk about what people meeting New Orleanians always want to talk about. “He wanted to know about Mardi Gras and all of that,” Alexander said. Alexander, who you’ll remember was acting like he was big stuff in New Orleans, kept the act going, suggesting that he was chummy with Louis Armstrong, who’d been Zulu king three years before, and bragging of having caught a coconut.
“What does that mean?” King wanted to know. Alexander said, “It means you’re somebody.”
Their friendship was cemented, Alexander said, not in a religious setting, but in a decidedly more secular one. “We got really close when we shot pool,” he said.
King’s love of pool has been well documented. There’s a famous photo of him lining up a shot with the pool cue behind his back, a shot that only a skillful player could make or even attempt. Biographies say that King, to the dismay of his more traditionally Baptist father, took up pool at Crozier Theological Seminary while pursuing his doctorate. In a book called “Reflections on Our Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” one of King’s former parishioners says King used pool to connect to Montgomery residents ignored by other preachers.
“I knew some of the guys who hung out in the vicinity of the pool room,” Wiley Thomas writes. “One or two of them were…