By Delbert Reed
First printed in The Tuscaloosa News on October 4, 1995.
Reverend Ike B. Cannon was the kind of man they used to make Hollywood movies about, and I always meant to write a story about him and what made him the way he was. I regret that I never did, and he has been dead four years now.
A vivid black and white memory of Reverend Cannon has been stuck in my mind for more than 40 years. He was one of the last street preachers in West Alabama, and I can see him even now, red-faced and dark-eyed, mopping sweat from his brow with one hand while holding his Bible high over his head with the other, hoarsely shouting The Word to a small crowd that came and went throughout the late August Saturday afternoon in front of P. E. Robertson’s Grocery on Main Avenue in downtown Northport.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Cannon preached not only in Northport but also at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse and on the Courthouse Square in Fayette and anywhere else the opportunity came. His was a rugged, familiar face in such places, and his daughters played the accordion and most of the family joined in to sing gospel songs and hymns.
Cannon preached for more than 60 years before his retirement and death, according to family members. He was pastor of several Baptist churches in northern Tuscaloosa County, where he spent his life, and served as pastor of two churches, Friendship and Sterling, for more than 30 years at the same time.
Cannon also had a radio ministry for a time in the 1950s and held revivals throughout West Alabama in churches, tents and brush arbors. He preached any time and any place he could. It was his calling, and he always answered.
“It never mattered to him what denomination a church was, he would always go and preach if he was invited,” his daughter Kate said recently. “But he was an ordained Missionary Baptist preacher.”
“The churches would be packed to hear that old man, too,” youngest son Jerry, who wears the same sharp features of his half-Cherokee Indian father, recalled with a fond smile.
“But he never made any money preaching,” said J. C. Cannon, the oldest son. “There was no money to be made in those days. He farmed to support his preaching.” Kate, on the same subject, said she remembered selling eggs on Saturday so he could buy gas to drive to church to preach on Sunday.
Cannon, born in 1907 near New Lexington, spent much of his young life as a tenant farmer, but in 1945 he bought the Samantha-area farm his family still holds onto today. He and Mrs. Cannon had nine children of their own and generously adopted and raised five others, supporting the large family with the farm.
“He was always a preacher,” Kate said. “I can never remember him not being a preacher. And he always took the family wherever he preached, even in the old days when we traveled by mule and wagon. I can still remember sleeping on a pile of quilts in the back of the wagon on the way home after dark. Those trips always seemed so long,” she added.
Cannon was not only a farmer and preacher; he was a talented musician, too. “He could play any instrument he picked up,” said Kate, who spent years playing the accordion on the street and the piano in church before turning the job over to her sister Carolyn.
In the 1950s, Cannon drove a big, long, black car with loudspeakers mounted on the top. The car was a 1946 Ford, according to Jerry. The younger children often sat in the car or played about on the street nearby while their father preached. The older girls and Mrs. Cannon usually joined in on the songs unless Mrs. Cannon was busy selling produce at the Farmer’s Market.
Cannon’s children, now in their fifties and sixties, remembered him for me recently, trying to help me understand why I have held onto this memory of him for so long. It is a picture of a time and a man handsome and tanned from working the fields and with a calling few of us could ever understand. My goal had been to find the man or myth that had created that lasting memory.
“I’d like people who didn’t know him to know how good he was,” Kate said. “He helped a lot of people. He kept a lot of people from going to hell. He always told a joke or funny story to get your attention when he preached, then he’d give you the fire and brimstone,” she said with a wide, proud smile as tears glistened in her eyes.
Cannon performed scores of weddings through the years, often at his home and at all hours of the day and night. He also visited the sick, even when he could no longer drive himself, and he preached many, many funerals.
“He was a good man,” Kate repeated. “I remember he brought some relatives to our house during the big snow of 1940-41 to keep them from freezing and starving.”
“He was the best man who ever lived,” said Jerry, looking away toward his youngest son, Ike, playing happily nearby.
As a boy of 12 or 13, I stood at the edge of a small congregation, some of whom leaned against nearby storefronts or sat on the fenders of dusty cars parked along Main Avenue in Northport, listening to the music and the preaching of Reverend Cannon.
I don’t remember a word he said those many years ago, or the songs the girls sang, but I remember the man with the coal-black hair and red shirt. And I remember the message, because I know now that Reverend Ike B. Cannon was himself the message.