Rev. Alexander is indeed an eyewitness to history, but he is much more. He is a history maker and living legend in his own right. He is an historian, photographer, entrepreneur, retired labor organizer, minister, griot, civil rights advocate, radio and TV host and political observer.
Unassuming and humble, the self-described ‘eyewitness to history’ and civil rights icon reviews for his guests key moments in his life. There’s a photo of Alexander and his late wife Theresa Jarrow Alexander together at the Zulu Ball. He is the oldest Zulu member. “I joined in 1949, when Louis Armstrong was King Zulu,” he replies.
And there’s young Samson winning an Armed Forces track competition. “I was the first Black, the only one out of 1000 Whites in New Orleans to sign up for the Air Force,” he explains. Alexander studied photography in the Air Force.
To the right, in his dining room, standing on the floor, are the now famous photos of Mrs. Coretta Scott King and her children at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Although Ebony Magazine’s photographer, the late Moneta Sleet, got credit for the photos, Alexander took the photos for Sleet, he said, because “He wasn’t allowed in. (Funeral organizers) didn’t want photographers shooting pictures with flashes that could disturb the ceremony.”
Alexander oversaw seating and had access to all areas of the church, so he took the photos. He remembers Mahalia Jackson asking him where to sit at the funeral. “I told her, ‘You’re Mahalia Jackson. You can sit anywhere
you want,’ ” Alexander recounts.
Among the many photos of historical significance that Alexander shot, there is a photo of the late Judge Israel M. Augustine with Dr. King and Pittsburgh Courier manager Butch Curry and another of Rev. King and Alexander at a pool table.
“I shot pool with Dr. King,” he beams.
Alexander was there when the Montgomery Bus Boycott kicked off in December 5, 1955; and the lifetime Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) member was present when the SCLC held its formative meeting in New Orleans on February 14, 1957. He participated in the August 28,1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights led by now U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Hosea Williams on March 7 and 9, 1965. And Alexander was in Memphis, Tennessee when Rev. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“I was there to organize the sanitation workers,” says the retired union organizer. “Dr. King had come out on the porch two days in a row. He had decided not to speak at a church because he had a bad cold, but he went anyway.”
Change of Trajectory
Nineteen years earlier, Alexander had signed up for the Air Force at age 16, after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School. He ran track for the Air Force at the Armed Forces Network games in Japan and won the 100-meter race in 2:20, in addition to studying and practicing photography in the Air Force.
Alexander was driving home from Denver—honorable discharge papers secured and photographic training acquired. He was ready for civilian life. But the August 28, 1955 murder of Emmett Till by KKK members in Mississippi changed the trajectory of Alexander’s life. The tragedy brought him face-to-face with his destiny: to fight for civil and human rights.
A fateful stop for water was the catalyst for Alexander’s involvement in civil rights.
“I was coming home in a 1949 Mercury and I knocked at a home in Mississippi. The man gave me some water and some advice. He said, ‘Leave as quick as you can.’ That was Emmett Till’s grandfather. That brought me into the civil rights movement.”
Till’s murder invoked memories of a similar incident in Louisiana.
“I was 10 years old on the way to visit relatives in Baton Rouge. I remember my family had to hide in the woods because we saw a truck full of Whites with a Black man in the back. They were going to lynch that man.”
“When the Emmett Till thing broke, I went to Chicago to visit my aunt.” While there, Alexander got involved with the AFL-CIO and learned how to organize unions. “The AFL-CIO was a major supporter of the civil rights movement,” he adds.
An event at Booker T. foreshadowed Alexander’s entry into the labor movement; when he met labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, president of Sleeping Car Porters Union.
“Our principal, L.B. Crocker invited him to school to talk about voting rights and unions. Once he explained what unions could do, nothing could stop me from joining the labor movement because I was looking for something to protect me from the White man,” Alexander says.
He also remembers a meeting between Rev. King and New Orleans’ labor boss, Clarence “Chink” Henry, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association–Local 3000. “Dr. King came to meet with Chink Henry to get funds for the movement.”
The AFL-CIO gave him big checks. Labor and the civil rights movement worked together.”
“I did it all,” says Alexander of his work as a union organizer with the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “I organized the Sewerage & Water Board, Charity Hospital, Baumer Foods, public service buses, and Avondale Shipyards. And once unionization passed the U.S. Supreme Court, I was organizing everywhere.”
Alexander spent a year organizing in New York, after receiving death threats for trying to organize a union at West Jefferson Hospital. “My wife was a nurse there and they were treating her very badly.”
He met his wife, Theresa, in Edgard, Louisiana, while visiting his grandmother. “I had met her when I was a boy. I would go stay with my grandmother every summer,” he says.
It was love at first sight. The pair were married for 60 years. They had four children, Samson, Jerome, Jo-Ann, and Jacqueline. Son Samson has passed but the remaining three stay in touch with their father. Jacqueline lives with Alexander.
Lorena Spencer, his maternal grandmother, reared Alexander. He attended Danneel and Thomy Lafon schools before graduating high school. The brilliant student was lauded by teachers and students for his comedic talent.
“I kept them laughing,” he remembers.
Today, Alexander shares his civil rights experiences at lectures; on his WBOK radio show, Hidden History (Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.) and his Eyewitness to History television series, Cox Cable, Ch. 76 (Sundays, 4:30 pm). He is also an associate pastor at Christian Unity Baptist Church.
“We are in a lot of trouble,” he says of the state of the Blacks today. “We have to reinvent the civil rights movement. Education is the key. You must know your history to deal with the present.”