As the breakfast dishes began to be put away and the coffee cups were given a second filling during Monday’s 49th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, suddenly the band struck up from the front of the room.
Accompanying the jazz group came the sounds of voices of all kinds, women and men of all walks of live bursting into the uplifting number ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ – a staple of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Those voices and the band were the product of the Old South Church in the Back Bay – notably the Old South Gospel Choir led by Tim Harbold and the Old South Jazz Combo led by Willie Sordillo.
It set the tone for a morning of victory and remembrance – something very common in the history of the 350-year-old Old South Church, which has been a beacon for social justice throughout its existence.
The Boston MLK Breakfast is the oldest breakfast of its kind in the country, having been established by two South End churches – Union United Methodist and St. Cyprian’s – some 49 years ago. For Old South, it was the second year their stellar Gospel Choir graced the stage to set the proper tone for the morning.
“It’s certainly an honor and a big occasion and very memorable,” said Harbold, who also teaches choir at Wheaton College in Norton. “The fortunate thing for us is this kind of concert is a true team effort. It takes us out of our usual acoustic element. Our choir is accustomed to singing in churches and this is, quite frankly, a large room where we’re using microphones. But for our church, the history of it, certainly we have always been about fighting for justice in all kinds of issues throughout the history of Old South. This is our 350th Anniversary this year. As a musician, it’s hard to fathom the church is older than Bach.”
Harbold said having the Old South Gospel Choir perform is notable for the membership, as they have so many ties to King and the Civil Rights Movement.
“Members of our choir have a lot of ties to this,” he said. “We have one member who was in Selma and others who heard Dr. King speak on several occasions. We also had Coretta Scott King sing in a choir with Old South at one time too.”
The Gospel Choir in its current form is but six years old, and they perform for the church membership one time a month during services at the Back Bay church.
“One of our members, Deb Washington, said that we should have a Gospel Choir at Old South,” he said, “and that was the beginning of what he have now.”
In addition to the performances during services, they also perform on Thursday nights from time to time, and they also get out into the community.
The Community Mission Society, now the Boston Mission Society, held a gospel choir festival a few years ago for its 200th anniversary. It was there that Old South performed and likely caught the eye of the MLK Breakfast organizers.
“I’m not sure, but maybe it was that event or another event that brought us to the attention of the breakfast committee,” he said. “We participated last year, and we were asked to participate this year again.”
The choir features anywhere from 15 to 25 members, and they range in age from college students to older adults. The choir features all races and also all abilities of singing – no one who wants to sing is turned away. On larger performances, Old South overlaps some with St. Paul’s of Cambridge.
Debbie Green was one member who participated in Monday’s performance, and she said it has been a great opportunity to add her voice to the large, annual celebration of Dr. King.
“I’ve been singing since I was a child,” she said. “I’ve been to the breakfast, but it’s a whole different thing to be here and to be performing up front. I really consider it quite an honor.”
At Monday’s breakfast, Harbold said they chose to sing ‘I Will Sing’ by African-American composer Rosephanye Powell. That was notable, Harbold said, because there aren’t many women Gospel composers – let alone a woman of color.
“I had been planning to do that song at some point and it was very nice to feature an African American woman composer (on Monday),” he said. “In the choral world, there aren’t enough women composer and not enough African American women as well. That was a representation we were eager to have.”
As the morning concluded, with more than 1,000 people listening intently, the Old South Gospel Choir rose to sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’
The audience rose with them. And it certainly won’t be the last time the Back Bay choir will bring listeners to their feet.