Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously preached “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” the night before he was assassinated. How could he feel that way, with all the challenges he faced? It is in serving others and sharing love heart to heart that we see the view from the mountaintop in this life.
Listen to the entire service here.
The Anthem for this service was a piece arranged by Eileen Laurence. She provided this in-depth background as to how the piece came about.
Click here to see the performance.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute backstory
Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, TN on 4/4/1968. On that day I was on a concert tour with The Riverside Singers in the Deep South. The six of us heard the news of his death while we were settling into our hotel. Stunned, we were sure our concert would be canceled. When we went down to the hotel lobby, we were chagrined to hear the local people there loudly and joyfully celebrating Dr. King’s death. We looked at each other in shock and realized we needed to go to the concert site and get ready for our concert.
There was no mention of his death that evening. We left as soon as possible the next morning, hightailing it back north where we joined the mourners.
Twenty-five years later I had transitioned into another profession, sacred music. I was the Director of Music at the First Presbyterian Church in Katonah, NY. That congregation had a close relationship with Antioch Baptist Church in nearby Bedford Hills, NY. Every year we joined together to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. I became close friends with the musical Brown family – papa Earl and daughters Earlina and Gwen– the organist, choir director, and piano player there. At that time our handbell program at the Presbyterian church was developing and I had begun to write arrangements of bell music that filled the empty spots in the traditional published repertoire. The idea of writing a handbell number honoring the life of Dr. King percolated in my mind. I knew the title, The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute. I wanted it to include excerpts of Dr. King’s speeches and his favorite hymns. I knew I could get help from the Brown family to get the gospel style just right.
My first challenge was to identify Dr. King’s favorite hymns. I got lucky. In 1993, while I was with my husband at one of his interfaith conferences, I met Dr. C. T. Vivian, Director of the Center for Democratic Renewal and a close friend of Dr. King. Dr. Vivian was happy to talk to me about Dr. King and his favorite hymns. We chose There is a Balm in Gilead, Battle Hymn of the Republic and We Shall Overcome. Next, to select excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches I conferred with Dr. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City. It was difficult to choose the words out of so many thrilling orations Dr. King had preached, but we were happy with the ones that were ultimately
Then I ran into a roadblock. I needed copyright permission from the King family to use Dr. King’s words in the narration. I called Coretta King who referred me to her sons. The amount of money they requested was much more than I had expected! I would never receive enough royalties from sales to cover that expense! I was devastated! I shared my dismay with Dr. Bruce White, minister of the Katonah Presbyterian Church. To my utter amazement, a few days later Dr. White informed me that the church’s congregation had agreed to cover the cost! I never would have asked for that, but under the circumstances, I accepted their generous gift and began to write the score.
I am grateful to many people for their help, including William Griffin who agreed to publish it for the catalogue of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, Inc. This work was first performed at the Riverside Church in New York City on March 26, 1995, with seven combined handbell choirs, the Inspirational Choir from Riverside, and Dr. James Forbes narrates.