MANCHESTER – Students, parents and other township residents came out for the longest tribute service for Dr. Martin Luther King held in Ocean County and perhaps the state.
The 51st Annual Dr. King Tribute was billed as an “evening of Song and Celebration” and was held at the township high school auditorium. It was sponsored, in part, by a generous donation from the Manchester Township PTA in cooperation with the township school district.
Members of the combined high school and middle school Gospel Chorus were a major part of the evening’s program featuring five musical performances.
In addition to the 18-member Gospel Chorus performances, and the inspirational dance performance by student Louquasha Lett, the night’s presentation involved the evening’s keynote speaker, New Jersey theatrical producer, director, and actor, Darrell Lawrence Willis, Sr. who spoke about portraying Dr. King on stage.
He recalled the time in 1992, meeting Dr. King’s eldest daughter Yolanda Denise King on an elevator. “The elevator broke down. She looked at me and said ‘Are you an actor?’ I said ‘Yeah,’ and she asked me what I was working on and I said ‘The Meeting’” a two-character play of a chance meeting between Dr. King and Malcolm X.
“She didn’t say anything and just looked at me up and down and then said ‘You aren’t tall and thin like Malcolm, you are short and pleasantly plump like Daddy so you must be playing Daddy.’ I said ‘Yes, I am.’ She said I could ask her three questions so I asked her if Dr. King smoked cigarettes and she said ‘Yes.’ A few photos of him showed him smoking. I asked her what she remembered about him toward the end. She said that in one year they had to change their phone number 29 times. I asked her what I could take going forward whenever I played her father. She said that during that last year of his life, she said remember Dr. King loved to eat but he could not keep food down hardly at all. We don’t always think about the small things we look forward to every day,” he said, but when you live a big life like that it impacts even the small things.
“We are so happy to see this unique program continue on. Last year we celebrated 50 years and we had many people who were involved with it including our past chorus directors come back,” said Claire Rutz, a teacher at the school was among the support staff for the event. “It really is amazing to see and hear what they do.”
Superintendent of Schools David Trethaway put the age of the students in perspective. “These kids weren’t even born in 9/11/2001 so getting them to know Dr. King is really important. We want to get them to know him and not take for granted the lessons he taught us all.”
Former chorus director Evelyn Swift, who is now a principal at Whiting Elementary School, had her roots in music. “I was the director for 11 years and a former member of the chorus when I was a high school student. When I became a teacher here I took over as director when the director moved on and it was a wonderful opportunity. It is not just an opportunity for them to show their vocal talents but to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King through an outstanding program.”
“Many schools have a choral group made up of jazz and other music but I think we were the first in the entire state to offer gospel. This tribute was organized by Queen Cannon who came back last year as she had moved out of the area,” Swift said.
Current chorus advisor Selena Bullock said this year marks her 11th year with the program. “This chorus is my passion and I literally do ask God to help me to pick out what I think they can remember and learn and enjoy.”
Her son James “Jay” Bullock accompanied and performed with the school’s Gospel Chorus that night as he has for the last 10 years.
Cannon’s nephew, Pastor Eric Lawson served as master of ceremonies for the event and said he was proud to be a part of “this continuing legacy. I was part of the second graduating class of this high school in 1978,” Lawson said proudly.
Another former gospel chorus adviser was Joan Marie Slater who provided the introduction of the program. “As we celebrate the 91st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King tonight it is a reminder of not only what he stood for but what he wanted us to stand for as well. We are a country divided. While in many ways we are an advanced country with first world problems, despite the technology that has made our lives easier in many ways we are no further along in diversity and social justice than we were 51 years ago. We need as individuals as well as a country to get back to the dream and hopes Dr. King had for our country because they seem to have been lost somewhere along the way and at times seem almost impossible to find.”
“Too many times in order to solve these problems, instead of using peace, violence is being used and that needs to stop so our children can live in a world of peace. He gave his most famous speech, ‘I had a Dream’ before an audience of 250,000 demonstrators in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That dream is just as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so,” she said.