MANCHESTER – The Manchester Township School’s Gospel Chorus could be described as the physical embodiment of joy and gratitude. With hands in the air, on a microphone, or clasped in prayer, the gospel chorus and the Manchester community came together to celebrate 50 years of song and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with one night of joyful noise.
The district hosted a celebration of 50 years for the gospel chorus with an Evening of Song and Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 18 at Manchester Township High School.
The program featured a live band, the middle school and high school gospel chorus, the Manchester Alumni Gospel Chorus, members of the Restoration Family Worship Center, chorus founder Queen Cannon, and a guest speaker who marched with Dr. King.
Praise and worship was performed by members from the Restoration Family Worship Center to kick off the evening with a soulful and boisterous set of songs.
“It is quite an accomplishment that over these 50 years, the Manchester Gospel Chorus has stayed in existence…it is a testament to the community in Manchester,” said Joan Marie Slater, former advisor for the district.
“We also celebrate the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…we need to bear witness to his dreams and his hopes for this country, because they seem to have gotten lost somewhere along the way,” Slater added.
Slater delivered a sort of call to action to open up the evening, stating that “we are a country divided” and we must find a way to peace through the racial divide and terrorism that still plague our 21st century society.
“Dr. King sought to change through peaceful means and we need to take a page out of his book,” she said, to much praise from the audience. “I encourage everyone to continue to help each other…find a way to celebrate those values Dr. King held in high esteem.”
Eric Lawson of the Restoration Family Worship Center, Master of Ceremonies for the event, gave a rousing speech to introduce the performers, each sentence accented with a heartfelt “Amen.”
“We are not going to sit around, we’re gonna sing with ‘em, we’re gonna dance with ‘em, we’re gonna shout with ‘em,” Lawson said to the audience.
Taking cues from Lawson’s words, audience members took each other’s hands, got up out of their seats, danced, sang, and shouted words of encouragement from the crowd to the performers on stage.
Donned in white and black, students from both the middle school and high school gospel choruses joined voices on stage to perform favorites including “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” “I Am A Winner,” “Amazing Grace My Chains Are Gone,” and “What A Beautiful Name It Is.”
Contrary to most shows or performances, the gospel celebration showed almost no divide between those on stage and those off. Lawson’s words were not only meant to bring the performance and audience together as one, but also stood as a reminder of Dr. King’s mission to fight the good fight – together.
The special guest speaker for the evening was a participant in one of Dr. King’s marches, Reisa Sweet. Sweet is one of the hundreds of individuals who heard Dr. King’s inspirational words in person, as they were spoken on that day in history.
Sweet expressed great honor and gratitude to be invited to a celebration of Dr. King. She recalled her time back in the 1960s during the Jim Crow laws, stating “People knew it was wrong, and it was Dr. King who took the initiative and he created an atmosphere where people felt that they had the power to get together and bring about a change.”
In 1965, Sweet traveled from Newark to Selma with her husband, their rabbi and his wife.
“When we got to the airport, we heard a rumor that there was a bomb on the airplane, so we got concerned and we all wrote out our wills,” she remembers. With two-year old and three-year old children, Sweet and her husband joined others in writing and acting as witnesses to everyone’s wills before they landed safely in Selma.
“It was absolutely unbelievable, everybody was there for a reason, and there was people there that had an incredible sense of unity and sense of purpose,” she added.
Sweet remembers being picked up in a Jeep and being driven with extreme care, for fear of being stopped and arrested.
“His presence was so powerful and so strong…we went through the streets, we saw schools that were segregated, we knew the issues with the voting rights, we knew that there were things that had to be changed and he had this incredible power to bring people together,” Sweet said.
While all this was happening, Sweet was acutely aware of those who were standing by “not as welcoming,” waiting for a reason to target or arrest one of the marchers.
“I can tell you it was a powerful time in our life,” she said, comparing the sense of togetherness on that day, to that of the evening’s celebration. “We all have our voice, our sense of self, that we can make a change.”
The anniversary celebration culminated with the honoring of the gospel chorus’ founder, Queen Cannon. Cannon moved to Manchester Township from North Carolina in 1968. She was a 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teacher before becoming principal of the Ridgeway School. She then spent 29 years as a guidance counselor, transitioning to the middle school in 1983. Cannon was also drama director for 28 years, Bible club advisor for five years, and founder of the gospel chorus until she retired.
Mrs. Cannon sat front row during the show, being honored by each speaker that took the mic for her time, effort, and inspiration. The middle school and high school chorus members joined voices with the Manchester Alumni Gospel Chorus in a tribute to Cannon’s legacy in the Manchester Schools.
While Mayor Kenneth Palmer could not make it to the celebration, he sent along a proclamation from the township, recognizing the Manchester Schools for 50 years of gospel music.
Presented by Whiting Elementary Principal Evelyn Swift, current gospel chorus director, the proclamation recognized the anniversary, founder Queen Cannon, and the gospel chorus’ contributions to the celebration of Dr. King since 1973. It read: “The gospel chorus allows students the opportunity to share their talents in vocal and instrumental music and present an inspirational message aligned with those presented in gospel music.”