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How we got Dr. King to shoot pool to make him more of a Chicago ‘street guy’

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., campaigning in Chicago in 1966, shot a game of pool at a West Side pool hall. The photo op was planned by his aides to "humanize" him, Don Rose, his Chicago press secretary, now reveals. (AP Photo)

I hadn’t intended to write anything on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., given the torrent of remembrances by others. But a friend showed me a set of photos from King’s campaign in Chicago when I served as his local press secretary, speech writer and political advisor.

Several of the photos, taken on Feb. 18, 1966, showed King in a West Side pool hall shooting a game with the late Al Raby, his co-chair of the Chicago Freedom Movement. The  event made the front pages of all the local newspapers, TV news, the networks and wire services, plus a big piece in Time Magazine.


The friend remembered that I had something to do with the setup and urged me to tell about it. So, taking a breather from from the perils of Syria, Iran, troops on the border, fixer lawyers, former FBI director James Comey’s book and related Trumpiana, here’s the back story.

King was well covered by the media here. A news conference, an announcement, a speech, or whatever, needed no gimmicks or stunts to get a full turnout of local and national reporters and cameras. Only twice did I resort to stunts, the first of which is pictured in this pool hall photo.

Here’s why:

Although King was welcomed, admired — even idolized — in African American communities, we got reports from organizers that in some black areas questions were raised about a “sanctified southern preacher,” or variations thereof, coming to reform Chicago.

We thought it would be helpful to “humanize” King, make him more of a “street” guy. Knowing that my pal Raby was a first-rate pool player  — he had a regulation table in his living room — I got the idea that a pool game in the heart of the ghetto might help serve the purpose.

Al asked the good reverend if he ever shot pool and — lo! — the reverend replied that he loved the game, having honed his skills during college days.

A routine we undertook early in King’s stay in Chicago was to walk with him through various black neighborhoods, trailed by a media flock, to acquaint him with the communities. So we set up a walk through the West Side that would take them past a funky pool hall.

Once there, Raby stopped and asked King would he like to take a break for a game of straight pool.

It was electric.

King shot his best stick, which was pretty good, but Raby clearly was the better player. The camera people — still photos and TV — went nuts, getting their own shots from every angle, making like they were filming “The Hustler.”

For days after, we heard nothing but reports of a new admiration of King, making us feel we had accomplished part of our goal.

The only other “stunt” we resorted to came later, after a massive rally that filled Soldier Field and a march on City Hall.

Some media guy proposed that King post his 12 (as I recall) demands on the doors of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s fortress, echoing Martin Luther’s nailing his theses to the doors of a church in the 16th century. King used Scotch Tape.

Photos and film of that event also went around the world.

Political consultant Don Rose writes for the Chicago Daily Observer, where this was posted.

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