The featured composer at the annual Martin Luther King Day concert hopes his music performed Monday night resonates in present day as well and commemorates the life and accomplishments of the civil rights leader.
As it has done the past three years, the Norman Philharmonic and the 100-voice Unity Choir celebrated King’s life Monday through an evening performance at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church. They performed arrangements of religious songs, civil rights anthems and one original composition from Jamaican composer Andrew Marshall.
Marshall, who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2012 with a doctorate in choral conducting, said before the program he hoped his pieces inspire listeners to invoke change in their immediate world. His message was punctuated by addresses from two Black OU faculty members who reflected on the importance of the holiday in present day.
“I hope that the text goes forth with potent clarity, and hopefully, the music can assist in some way in getting that across,” Marshall said.
Concert executive director Cathy Griffin said COVID created difficulty when planning the concert — organizers had to cancel two educational concerts attached to the main event because Norman Public Schools went to remote learning last week. The event Monday night had reduced capacity seating and a virtual option for people who would rather not attend in person.
Griffin said the show went forward because the musicians were adamant they wanted to perform.
Marshall said he recomposed his original piece in the concert, “Change,” in response to the pandemic. The number featured five solo vocalists backed by the choir and orchestra.
But Marshall also said the message of this song has a broader meaning as well.
“(We’re) able to start a ripple effect wherever we are in the world, in our community, in our schools, in our country, in all kinds of situations,” he said.
The concert also featured Marshall’s arrangements of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and the religious song “He Never Failed Me Yet.”
OU faculty members spoke between musical performances during the concert. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer of the university, called out how people in the United States respond to divisions and differences in light of King’s legacy.
“When we disagree, communication ceases. When we have different political beliefs, we can no longer be together. When we think differently around how things should be done, we cut people out of our lives,” she said. “Think about the legacy of the man that we celebrate, and if he had chose those actions versus leaning into change.
“Dr. King devoted his life to trying to bring people together. He worked to see the good in others, even those who plotted to keep him silent and eventually those who killed him. When Dr. King received pushback and rejection, he chose kindness, love, peacefulness. When others said it was impossible, he chose to believe and sojourn toward the future. We must not get in the habit of quoting the words of Dr. King one or two months out of the year, but we must lead the life of change.”
Karlos Hill, chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, asked audience members to ask themselves how King would view the United States today during the pandemic.
He especially emphasized this point, he said, since the country has created a holiday in King’s honor.
“He would ask, ‘Are you really committed to creating that beloved community that I talked about? Are we really committed to creating true equity in this most wealthiest country that the world has ever seen and may ever see?’” Hill said. “That’s what America is — America is the wealthiest, most prosperous nation that has ever existed in this world, and we have the poorest, largest poorest population of any western country. We have to hold that in light of creating a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Hill also briefly said former death row inmate Julius Jones should not be in prison. Jones, whose murder conviction had several details in question, had his sentence commuted to life without parole in November following demonstrations in Oklahoma City and at the death chamber in McAlester.
George Henderson, an OU professor and civil rights activist in the 1960s, was unable to speak at the event because he had been exposed to COVID-19.