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Former Classmate Shares Memories of Martin Luther King Jr.

Patti Singer

James Beshai, a classmate of the late Martin Luther King Jr. at Crozer Theological Seminary (later Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) talks about the civil rights icon while visiting the Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Law. The center is in the law office of Van White. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Standing at the pool table where he and Martin Luther King Jr. played eight-ball while students in divinity school brought back memories of the slain civil rights icon.

“I want to share his candidness and authenticity,” said James Beshai, who was introduced to his classmates on his first day at Crozer Theological Seminary a half-century ago by King, president of the student body.

The two stayed friends from that meeting in September 1950 until King’s assassination in 1968.

“He was truly a modest man,” the 94-year-old Beshai said. “He was a brilliant mind but he never made me feel inferior to him. He always made me feel as if I am on the same level as he was.”

Beshai was in Rochester May 28 for the unveiling of the restored table that he, King and their residence hall friends used when they took breaks from their studies at the school in Upland, Pennsylvania.

The table is part of an extensive display of educational material and period pieces from the Civil Rights movement housed in the Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Laws. The displays are contained in the law office of Van White, who curates the material and makes it available to school groups and others studying human rights.

James Beshai remembers playing pool and his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Displayed are what are could be the pool balls from those days. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

White researched the provenance of the table, which came to Rochester with a faculty member when Crozer merged with Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1970 and became Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

Ironically, White played on and around the table without appreciating its significance. It belonged to Rev. Dr. Theodore J. Weeden, who had taught at Crozer, and he brought it with him when he moved to Brighton.

White was friends with Weeden’s son and the table was always part of the homes Weeden had.

Weeden gave the table to White for his center.

Tracing the table’s history led him to Beshai, who lives in Pennsylvania. The two have become friends, and Beshai has given White many books and documents on the Civil Rights era, including letters from King and his wife, Coretta.

As a young man, King frequented pool halls and as he used his affinity for and ability at billiards, he urged young Black men to join the nonviolent movement for civil rights.

Beshai said King had “great Christian love in his heart for what he called ‘our white brothers,” he said.

Beshai said King would say “ ‘Our white brothers are acting in violence when they know not what they’re doing,” and he called King’s persecution “a second crucifixion. He was under a lot of pressure to the point of losing his life. And he accepted that with Christian love. That truly was his personality.”

Beshai is Egyptian, and he said King was interested in Egypt, its place in the Bible and whether as a Christian, Beshai was a victim of racism. He said the division wasn’t one of race but of religion.

When King and his wife visited Egypt to meet with the prime minister, Beshai took them on a side trip.

“I took them to the pyramids,” he said.

Beshai said he and King corresponded through the years, and he said the friendship “offered him a place in history.”

He said his association has added meaning to his own life.

“May God bless him as well as all in the service of human rights,” he said.