Choir recalls singing for MLK.: “We knew it was important to sing for him”

MEMPHIS Two weeks before his death in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a chance encounter there with a choir from the historically black college Prairie View A&M University. The scene was captured by a documentary filmmaker.

CBS News special correspondent James Brown met with some of the surviving members: Bob Duckens, Ernestine Odom, Richard Perkins, Judy Lusk, Tom Jones and Joe Berry. Fifty years ago, they wowed audiences with everything from show tunes to opera.

“We were able to do classical music, and do it well, and to show the Caucasian world that African-Americans could sing this music,” said Duckens.

On March 17, 1968, their tour bus driver made an unscheduled rest stop in Memphis at the black-owned Lorraine Motel.

Members of the choir that sang for Martin Luther King Jr.

CBS News

“The first morning that we woke up at the Lorraine, me and another choir member [were] walking down the street and walking and talking, and then we noticed that the garbage cans were stacked two, three or four high,” said Lusk. “We kept thinking, ‘Boy, Memphis sure is a filthy city.'”

At the time, they didn’t realize Memphis sanitation workers had walked off the job five weeks earlier, demanding equal pay and better working conditions.

On that March day, fate would bring the singers together with a civil rights icon. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support the workers, and he, too, was at the Lorraine Motel.

“How many of you knew, by show of hands, that Dr. King was staying here when you guys did check in here?” asked Brown.

“None of us,” the singers replied.

But their choir director knew, and planned an impromptu performance for King. They got their chance around midnight.

“I think the thing that put a gleam in our eyes was to know that we were going to sing now for Dr. King, our idol,” said Berry.

“My thing was, I was trying to find my pitch, I was trying to find my key,” said Perkins.

“So did you find your pitch?” Brown asked. “We found our pitch,” Perkins replied.

It was one of the last performances King would ever hear.

“He was just overwhelmed with it,” said Duckens. “I could see it in his face. I’ll never forget his face.”

It lasts just one minute and 48 seconds. But the impact was beyond measure.

“We knew it was important to sing for him, but we did not realize the importance of what this man was doing here in Memphis,” said Odom.

Just two weeks later, King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel. When the singers heard the news, their voices fell silent. But King’s words still echoed.

“In my mind was one of his speeches, ‘Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord, but I saw the clouds burst open,'” said Odom. “It was like I saw a figure coming down real fast toward me, and I have never in 50 years forgotten that dream.”

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