by Robert T. Gibson
Unite Guest Writer
Springfield, MO—Since returning to the Springfield community in 2018, I have been thankful to connect with others through music. Whether it is leading my middle school students at Reed Academy, conducting the gospel choir at Missouri State University, or leading worship at Faith Tabernacle Apostolic Church, music is the vehicle that has allowed me to connect with people of different races, backgrounds, and mindsets. On Monday, January 18, 2021, I had the honor and privilege of gathering a group of musicians to celebrate MLK Day by performing civil rights songs and gospel tunes at markers on the African-Heritage trail. This musical experience left a lasting impression on our ensemble as well as the community.
This group of singers, known as the MLK Celebration Singers, consisted of students from MSU as well as singers from the Springfield and Branson community. Due to COVID, we were not sure about the number of people that would be able to attend our performances; however, we made a conscious decision to sing regardless of who was watching. With only one hour of rehearsal, we put together songs of joy and hope such as We Shall Not Be Moved, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and We Come This Far By Faith. With performances at Timmons Hall and the downtown square, our ensemble transformed from a group of singers into a family whose purpose was to stand and fight together.
In addition to the Celebration Singers being a mix of black and white singers, they each experienced something unique to their musical journey. Here are thoughts from a few of our singers:
“Today’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration was a true treasure for me. It was exciting to perform uplifting music with such a talented ensemble. The public really enjoyed the songs as well. I was truly impacted by the markers placed throughout the city drawing attention to the hardships of the past and serving as a reminder of how far we’ve come.” (Vic Vaughn)
“Being in rehearsal today with a group of singers who were eager to learn the music quickly and celebrate the talents each person had was fulfilling and was the love and faith that our ancestors had when they were marching and fighting for freedom. My experience today reminded me that we can come together, black and white, and uplift one another.” (Allyssa Lang-Taylor)
“Being a part of the MLK Day Ensemble was a joy, meaningful to my personal musical journal, and one I’ll never forget. We had people engaging with the history of Black Springfield through the songs of the Civil Rights Movement as well as trekkers on the African-American Heritage Trail. And the NAACP even gave out the Black History Summer Academy’s “Hidden Gems” coloring books for trekkers to continue the engagement with our local Black history at home. It was truly a great day!” (Monica Horton)
“Today [was] about being united and I believe we did just that. I was amazed that we could come together and put this song set together in an hour. I truly felt like we touched the people who were listening, whether they planned to be there or were just passing by.” (Monet Britts)
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we performed four times today at places here in Springfield, MO. With everything going on right now, it felt so good to be around these amazing people and all sing in harmony with each other. I can’t think of any other way I would have wanted to spend this holiday. My heart is full. (Beth Hodges)
I consider myself to be a man of many words. However, this MLK experience left me speechless. When thinking about the history of Springfield and all that has transpired in the last century, it brings me joy and pain to know where we are and where we have come from. The same places our ensemble walked and sang songs of joy were once filled with hate, bigotry, and racism. The same marker in the square where we sang I Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom was the same place were hundreds of whites witnessed three innocent black men lynched. It brought me joy to lead a group of diverse singers around the community knowing that this would have never been possible a century ago. We have come far, and we still have more to go.
I was inspired to know that Clif Smart, president of Missouri State University, followed us from Timmons Hall to the square just to hear the ensemble perform again. I was encouraged when a group of film makers from LA interviewed me about my Springfield experience, helping me to realize that I, too, am a part of the history. I was overjoyed to see the faces of those who walked or drove by, heard our music, and smiled at us. The melodies sung was far greater than a performance; I believe an atmosphere of hope and unity was created in our community that will hopefully continue as we stand together with one voice and one sound. It is my prayer that the younger generation will see these acts of service and begin to create their own innovative ways of spreading love throughout Springfield. As the negro national anthem says, “Let us march on ‘til victory is won.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr started the march; we must finish it.
MLK Celebration Singers: Alyssa Bingham, Monet Britts, Anna Davis, Briar Douglas, Joey Faggion, Keira Griffith, Beth Hodges, Monica Horton, Spencer Jones, Catherine Kennedy, Morgan Ladyman, Allyssa Lang-Taylor, Emily Melton, Devin Sales, Isaac Shriner, Zach Stelzer, Vic Vaughn, Cody Yanez