Choir recalls their meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. just two weeks before his death

Choir reflects on singing for MLK Jr.
Choir reflects on singing for MLK Jr. 07:30

Two weeks before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, he met a college choir group at the Lorraine Motel. It's a little-known story about the civil rights icon that had a lasting impact on the young singers. Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

On March 18, 1968, an exhausted King retired to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He was wrapping up a long day of organizing on behalf of the city's striking sanitation workers. It was nearing midnight but King accepted an invitation from a choir from the historically black college Prairie View A&M University to sing for him. Crammed into a small conference room, the a cappella concert choir sang for the civil rights leader. The moment was captured by a filmmaker following King. They were a bit nervous but confident – and they delivered.

CBS News' James Brown brought six members of the choir back to the Lorraine Motel – which is now the National Civil Rights Museum – to reminisce about that night, 50 years ago.

Six of the members of the Prairie View A&M University a cappella choir CBS News

The group included Tom Jones, Bob Duckens and Richard Perkins, all bass singers, as well as Ernestine Ware-Odom, a soprano; Joe Berry, a baritone, and Judy Lusk, a soprano. In 1968, while on tour, the choir stopped in Memphis so their bus driver could rest and they checked into the black-owned Lorraine Motel.

"The first morning that we woke up at the Lorraine, me and another choir member were walking down the street… And then we noticed that the garbage cans were stacked two, three, or four high. And we kept thinking, 'Boy, Memphis sure is a filthy city.' And at that time, we didn't realize that the garbage strike was taking place," Lusk recalled.

The Memphis sanitation workers were fed up with low wages and dangerous work conditions and had been on strike for a month. They adopted a simple mantra: "I am a man." King was in town to support the strike as part of his Poor People's campaign and he and his staff also stayed at the Lorraine.

None of the choir group knew he was staying there, but their choir director did. Dr. H. Edison Anderson implored King's staff to let  his choir sing for them. The opportunity came around midnight after King came back from giving an evening speech.
"The first call came out to me from Dr. Anderson, 'Get everybody up. Dr. King is back,'" Tom Jones said. "Let's get ready to sing. They don't have to dress."

Prairie View A&M University choir performs for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel

They were in awe.

"It was just in awe of – of being in the room with Dr. King. And I think the thing that put a gleam in our eyes and everything was to know and to wake everybody up to know that we were gonna sing now for Dr. King, our idol," recalled Joe Berry.  

Added Judy Lusk, "And I remember looking at Dr. King thinking, 'This is the man that did the 'I have a dream' speech....We are in the room with – with that same person?'" added Judy Lusk.

Richard Perkins' first worry was finding the right pitch and key. And they all did find their key, singing "Alleluia" by Randall Thompson to perfection.

A little more than two weeks later, they learned the tragic news that King was killed at the Lorraine Motel. 

"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?" Lusk said.

"I was angry because they had just killed my hero. I mean this is a man who has given his life to liberating a whole race of people," Duckens said.

Ironically, the same photographer who filmed the choir singing for King, also took the memorable photo of a slain King. Lusk said she wants people to know that the Prairie View A&M a cappella choir was one of the last to sing for King.
"We were part of the Martin Luther King movement. And it was a very historic night for – for all of us," Lusk said.

Their voices are still as uplifting today as in 1968. On Monday, the six choir members along with a larger alumni group from Prairie View A&M University performed at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in Memphis in a symphony concert to honor Dr. King's memory and the sanitation workers for whom he came here to fight. They received a standing ovation for their rendition of "Alleluia."