Lift Every Voice in Song 

By on January 15, 2023

ECSU student Aisha Crosland performs with the ECSU choir. (Photos by Kip Tabb)
First Flight High School Freshman Ariel Coughlin in her solo performance as the choir sings "Children Go Where I Send Thee". (Photos by Kip Tabb)
First Flight High School senior Alex Livingston in his solo performance as the choir sings "Children Go Where I Send Thee." (Photos by Kip Tabb)
First Flight High School sophomore Mary Williams solo performance as the choir sings "Children Go Where I Send Thee." (Photos by Kip Tabb)
Founder of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Clarence Lewis. (Photos by Kip Tabb)
Rev. Spottswood Graves: “Conversation is literally the beginning” (Photos by Kip Tabb)
The Echoes of Heritage performed a number of traditional spirituals. (Lto R). Conductor and founder Doris Creecy, Clarence Lewis, Coquetta Brooks. (Photos by Kip Tabb)
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The Outer Banks Honors Martin Luther King Jr.

In a joyous and heartfelt celebration of his life, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was honored at First Flight High School on Saturday, Jan. 14. Musical performances by the First Flight High School Choir, Echoes of Heritage and the Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) Choir, a poetry reading and a recitation of the last paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream Speech” brought his message to life.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these thrust to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” King told the world in his Aug. 28, 1963 speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

This was the 32nd annual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday in Dare County. Clarence Lewis, who hosted the celebration with his son Michael, recalled that he and his wife Ruth began the event in 1992.

“I’m retired United States Army…When I retired, we came back to Manteo,” he said in an interview following the event. “The Haven Creek Baptist Church pastor wanted someone to do a program. They…had it, but it never had been in the church before. At that time, he asked my wife if she would take the program and she did it. She ran the program until her death three years ago.”

The program subsequently outgrew the church and has been held at a number of locations throughout the Dare County over the years.

Much of the pastoral message of Dr. King was how important it is to reach out to those we have not met and learn about them, and the Rev. Spottswood Graves encouraged the audience to do just that, talk to people they may never have known before.

“Conversation is literally the beginning,” he said, telling everyone that they should speak to someone they did not know, asking them, “How was your first house heated? The first house that you remember?” Immediately conversations were sparked among the attendees, with some people recalling coal chutes and oil heat and many of the younger members of the audience curious about what it was like to heat a home with coal.

Reverend Graves, after a few minutes of conversation, remarked, “This is wonderful to see how fast it is to get to meet a stranger…It’s often that first question that gets things started.”

The concept of coming together continued with a brief Scriptural reading from Clarence Lewis, recalling the words of Psalm 133. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” are the first words of the King James version of the psalm.

The idea of a fellowship of all people was the theme Dr. King spoke to in the “I Have a Dream” speech, and the final words of what he said that day were read by Michael Lewis: “When all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

The spirituals of the African American tradition were brought to life by the musical performances.

The First Flight High School choir, under the direction of John Buford, began with a powerful and complex arrangement of Children, Go Where I Send Thee.

“It’s been a great challenge for us to learn this piece,” Buford said, and the choir performed it magnificently, with solos from freshman Aerial Coughlin, sophomore Mary Williams and senior Alex Livingston.

The Echoes of Heritage have long been a part of spiritual and religious music on the Outer Banks, and Coquetta Brooks started by introducing the oldest member of the group. “This is my mother, Doris Creecy. She’s the last original Echo of the first twelve from 1990. She’s eighty-seven years old,” she said.

With Clarence Lewis, who at one time sang baritone in the ECSU choir, lending his voice to the performance, the Echoes of Heritage sang a number of spirituals and hymns from the history of the African American experience. As they sang, the voices of the ECSU choir could be heard quietly but distinctly accompanying the trio.

The ECSU choir was introduced by their Musical Director, Dr. Walter Swan. He continued Dr. King’s message of brotherhood, asking the audience to raise their hands if they were a Democrat, then Republican or Independent before asking who in the audience was an American. With everyone raising their hands he said, “Look around. From this day forward…I challenge you to no longer think parties but think of America.” What followed was a beautiful and powerful rendition of America the Beautiful.

Swan and his choir concluded the day by first leading the audience in Lift Every Voice and Sing, which the NAACP characterized as the “Negro National Anthem,” more than a century ago. The day’s celebration concluded with the voices of the auditorium raised to the words of We Shall Overcome.

The tradition of fellowship was continued after the celebration with a lunch provided by Haven Creek Baptist Church and the event’s organizers.


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