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In a time of racial division, the MLK All Children’s Choir brings ‘living hope’

The MLK All Children's Choir prepares for Monday's performances

The Martin Luther King Jr., All Children's Choir rehearses for its upcoming performances Monday at noon and 5 pm at Meymandi Concert Hall as part of the downtown Raleigh MLK holiday events.
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The Martin Luther King Jr., All Children's Choir rehearses for its upcoming performances Monday at noon and 5 pm at Meymandi Concert Hall as part of the downtown Raleigh MLK holiday events.

More than 80 youth will take the stage at Meymandi Hall on Monday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s universal message of freedom, justice, equality and love using the one language that speaks to nearly all: music.

The MLK All Children’s Choir has been performing at Raleigh’s celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday since the day became a federal holiday in 1986. Middle school music teacher Randy Shepard has led the group since it began. This year, he said, the choir has some third-generation members, who had a parent and a grandparent perform with the group.

“It’s become a Raleigh-Wake County tradition,” Shepard said.

The group holds auditions and begins rehearsals in the fall, and Shepard said the challenge each year is incorporating the youngest, newest voices into the choir with the more experienced ones, some of whom have been singing with the choir for years. Singers are accepted from age 5 to 18, and when they leave, those who go to college get a scholarship totaling $100 for each year they participated in the group.

Choristers arrived at a rehearsal Thursday night in the fellowship hall of Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh, signed in and took seats in their vocal section: soprano, alto, tenor. They warmed up under Shepard’s direction by singing vowel sounds instead of verses to one of their standards, a gospel arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine.”

The sound, non-committal at first, grew as the children settled down and gave Shepard their attention. Slowly, their voices began to blend and then harmonize. As they grew more comfortable, the sound swelled, and on some of their favorite numbers it grew so big it seemed to roll out the doors of the fellowship hall, down the hallway and out onto the street.

“It’s good for them,” said Sharelle McClenton, who has three children in the choir this year – Reginald Jr, 11; Kendall, 9; and Bryson, 6. “It gives them something to do, and they like to sing.”

The kind of revolution he was about was peace and love and bringing people together. It is the only antidote for what is taking place now.

The Rev. Dumas Harshaw, senior pastor of Raleigh First Baptist Church and chairman of the Triangle Martin Luther King Celebration Committee

Reginald Jr. – he likes to be called R.J. – is only in his second year in the choir, but is taking a solo this year on “Highest Praise,” written by Norris Garner, who has worked with the group for a decade and comes back from Washington each year to help get ready for the concerts.

R.J. was a little nervous on his first run-through of the song, but when it came around again, he stood straighter, focused on a spot in the distance and sang out strong.

The MLK All Children’s Choir has two performances at Meymandi Hall on Monday, at 12 noon and at 5:30 p.m. The concerts are free and open to the public.

He plans to be at his best when he puts on his white choir robe Monday, when the choir has two performances at Meymandi, at 12 noon and at 5:30 p.m. The concerts are part of the last day of a weekend’s worth of events marking MLK Day. They are free and open to the public.

The youngest children in the multi-racial choir have only the vaguest notions about King, but as they get older they learn about his growing up in a segregated America, his religious training and his use of non-violent protest as a way to bring attention to the inequalities caused by racism.

“The excitement and emotion of the performances are important,” said the Rev. Dumas Harshaw, senior pastor of Raleigh First Baptist Church and chairman of the Triangle Martin Luther King Celebration Committee. “But what’s more important is that they eventually learn the principles and theology of Dr. King, and the message he used to change America without violence.

“The kind of revolution he was about was peace and love and bringing people together. It is the only antidote for what is taking place now.”

Harshaw was referring to the racial tension that has increased in the U.S. since the election of President Donald Trump, and to remarks Trump made recently suggesting the U.S. should be less interested in taking in immigrants from African countries and more interested in ones come from Norway. The remark was widely regarded as expressing a preference for wealthy white immigrants over poor black ones.

Including children in the MLK Day events tells them they’re part of something bigger than themselves, Harshaw said. It also gives audiences a lift.

“The beautiful thing is that they’re innocent,” he said. “There is still that sense of wonderment, and that sense of living hope and of desires and dreams that they carry in their spirits and is reflected in their voices.”

That provides both inspiration and promise, Harshaw said.

“We did the best we could, and it hasn’t been enough,” he said. “There is the hope and prayer that they will do it much better than we have. And only children can bring that out.”  

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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