Sopranos, basses and altos, lawyers, doctors and government workers flocked into Michigan Park Christian Church on Wednesday night, shaking off the rain and their daily worries. Within minutes, 60 voices fused into one.
Filling the Northeast Washington sanctuary with pride and passion, they performed Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord Take My Hand” (which Mahalia Jackson sang at his funeral), “Amazing Grace” and even a hip-hop version of “Oh Freedom.” One try on each song was plenty; they had the music down cold.
Accompanying the handpicked choir on a baby grand piano, music director Nolan Williams Jr. provided little coaching. He just let the music speak.
It spoke powerfully. And Williams is hoping it will have the same effect when his choir, made up of some of the Washington region’s finest voices, performs a medley of freedom songs Sunday, just before President Obama dedicates the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“Celebrating King’s legacy would be incomplete if we didn’t have music as an essential part of this dedication ceremony, because music was a central part to the civil rights movement,” Williams said. “This choir is a representation of the beloved community of which King spoke, this idea of black and white coming together and there would be no divisions between us.”
Members of the choir were unfazed when the approach of Hurricane Irene forced a delay of the dedication, originally set for Aug. 28. “There is nothing lost,” said Agnes Donahue, 65, a dentist who serves as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The life that Dr. King lived is much bigger than a few days of delay.”
On breaks during a rehearsal in August, choir members shared some of their life experiences with one another. Donahue, who is African American, began to cry as she recalled her childhood in Ocean Springs, Miss.
“Growing up as a poor child, I never thought that I would see the day when I was out of Mississippi,” said Donahue, who is African American. She recalled watching whites brutally beat young black men who tried to go swimming at a segregated beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
Renee Paxton, who grew up in Richmond, recalled the upheaval caused decades ago by her winning a local Miss Chesterfield beauty pageant. “We got threatening phone calls because I won first place,” she said. “I was black, and they didn’t like that.”
As Paxton talked, Gilbert Adams, 68, who is white and grew up in Lexington, Ky., came over from the bass section to join the conversation. “When I hear her story of how she was treated and how her parents were treated, I wish that there was some way that I could apologize,” Adams said. “I realize, too, that there was so much, as whites, we missed out on because we were so intolerant.”
Larry Kolp, 68, of Arlington County, who is white and a baritone in the Choral Arts Society of Washington, recalled vivid memories of the days in Washington after King was shot down on the balcony of a Memphis motel. “In 1968, I came back from Vietnam and found the city in flames because of riots after King’s assassination,” Kolp said. “I had just left one war, and now Washington looked like a war zone.”
Like the King memorial, the coming together of the choir — an assemblage of people from different backgrounds and walks of life — represents the tremendous progress the nation has made, choir members said.
“We are slowly getting there. We are healing,” Kolp said.
Members of the choir were selected by audition from more than 30 churches and choral groups across the area, Williams said. Three rehearsals were held, and the last was recorded.
Malachi White, 13, who is African American, joined the group from the Maryland State Boychoir. “To me, singing in this choir shows that we do respect Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy,” he said.
Anu Pattabiraman, 22, who grew up in Bangladesh, said: “Being part of this event means that I have to continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, to spread equality to all people of the United States.”
That message was echoed in an original piece by Williams, which the choir will perform at the dedication ceremony:
I am he one that I’ve been waiting for, the dream. I am the change that I’ve been hoping for, the dream. If there’s a better world to be, then it’s up to me. Yes, I believe. I am a King. I am the dream.