Richard Perkins & the Story of the Last Choir to Sing for Martin Luther King

By John Vandevert

A while ago, we took a look at Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy as personified in opera. However, there is far more than one post can allow for. When it comes to Martin Luther King Jr. and his influence on music, there’s a lot more that can be said. Outside opera, symphony’s like Leonardo Balada’s “Sinfonía en Negro­” (2020), Margaret Bonds’s orchestral suite “Montgomery Variations” (1964), and Duke Ellington’s orchestral jazz symphony, “Three Black Kings” (1974), are just a handful of the many pieces inspired by the civil rights hero. 

When it comes to opera, however, there have been several wonderful attempts at bringing King to the stage. Most notably, in 2005 Dr. John Baur’s “The Promise” was one of the first attempts to operatically portray King’s civil rights journey. A few years later, in 2007, another attempt was made by composer Lauren Cregor with an operetta called, “The |King|,” with a narrative centered around a pastiche of different parts of King’s life and speeches set to a musica blend of rock, soul, and blues. Later, in 2012, Alan Marshall and Jonathan Stinson began a project called, “The March: A Civil Rights Opera,” its premiere occurring in November. However, one of the best known operatic attempts has been Douglas Tappin’s 2010 opera, “I Dream,” the story pertaining to the life of King, with the title role being sung by musical theatre singer Quentin Earl Darrington. 

Enter Richard Perkins

Rather than focus on operatic depictions of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work, one lesser known aspect of opera’s relationship with King takes from the stage to real-life. Namely, opera singer Richard Perkins and his story of singing for King himself. Originally from Port Arthur, Texas, Perkins got the chance to sing for King while a student at Prairie View A&M University while traveling in Tennesse in March of 1968. At the time, King was staying at the Lorraine Motel. Hotel and only two weeks later, the civil rights figure would be assassinated at the same location, making Perkin’s performance one of the very last performances King ever bore witness to before his death.

Perkins’ performance for King was not exactly planned, nor was it inevitable. As a part of a touring “Prairie A Cappella Choir” while at university in 1968, his participation had brought him to the same hotel which King was staying at before his death. And as it so happened, at the wee hours of the morning, the choir was called to perform Randall Thompson’s “Allelujah,” the composers of seminal American works like the “The Testament of Freedom” and the forgotten opera, “Solomon and Balkis.” However, for whom was unknown until the choir had walked into the room, finding out relatively quickly that they were in fact performing for King himself who, by 1968, had become internationally known for his civil rights advocacy. 

The group consisted of no less than six people, which included three basses, two sopranos, and a tenor. They had stopped in Memphis so their bus driver could take a break, and to stay the night. The choir checked in at the motel. At the time, city workers were on strike and so Memphis had been covered in garbage, the workers were petitioning.

As director Dr. H. Edison remembers, after King had come back from giving a speech, the offer came in and they were told to get ready as quickly as possible. As bass Tom Jones recalls, “Let’s get ready to sing. They don’t have to dress.” But as other choristers also remember, once they were there, they were in awe. In Perkin’s words, “We walked into the room and there he was slumped over the chair. He was really tired. He had been there twice — this was his second visit — and the man was really beat.” King’s presence wasn’t exactly well-liked at the time as many disliked King for his work, “People in the South saw the movement as being troublesome.” Shortly after King’s death, Judy Fisk recalls, “I just remember thinking, how sad. How sad for the movement that he had been building. And you know, what are we gonna do at this point.” But Fisk also points out, “We were part of the Martin Luther King movement. And it was a very historic night for – for all of us.”

While it’s a small part of history, it shouldn’t be, and must not be, forgotten that King’s influence on the world contains many facets, many just waiting to be discovered and rediscovered again. As one of the last choirs to ever sing for King before his death, Perkins participation shows how far opera has come in welcoming everyone to the stage.


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