MLK Day Celebrations Exemplify The Power of Song

Seán Brennan

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

Now, 48 years after his death, King’s legacy continues to be venerated in every city across the country, with each city celebrating this legacy in its own unique way.

This Monday marked the 30th anniversary of the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which was first observed as a federal day of remembrance in 1986. Locally, the citywide celebration of King’s life included marches, memorial ceremonies, interfaith services and more.

And in expected New Orleans fashion, the 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration was not complete without song.

From dozens of local church services to special tribute concerts, the holiday weekend proved that singing the gospel is much more than simply a musical genre.

While gospel music has always held an important role in the celebration of faith and King’s legacy, Alex Mikulich, Ph.D, an anti-racism activist and assistant professor at Loyola, believes that gospel goes far beyond a celebratory procedure.

“African-American gospel faiths have transformed our understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be a democratic society,” Mikulich said.

For Mikulich, gospel music is not just some formal part of celebration. Rather, it is the embodiment of incredible resilience and faith connected to the experiences of slavery for African-Americans.

“Gospel is deeply-rooted in slavery and oppression,” Mikulich said. “But it’s out of that experience that joy and life can be celebrated.”

African-American Gospel was born in the chains of slavery, but as a result it has developed into one of the most powerful practices of spirituality, as well as both a symbol and a language of strength and compassion.

Gospel has been connected with the remembrance of King’s legacy, both as an American Baptist minister and civil rights leader.

King understood both the importance of the gospel and the power of song, and the 30th anniversary of his holiday has shown that people of New Orleans recognize these values as well.

On Thursday, Jan 14, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation presented its first annual gospel tribute to the civil rights movement and the legacy of King. The tribute consisted of a free concert featuring multiple local gospel choirs.

Members of the New Orleans Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Planning Commission worked with the foundation to plan the free concert in conjunction with numerous other events throughout the holiday weekend, according to a press release from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Office website.

This tribute concert, along with various other services around the city, championed the power of gospel throughout the 30th annual holiday weekend.

As for the Loyola community, members of the campus choir, Genesis Gospel Choir, have learned to appreciate gospel music not only in celebration of King’s holiday, but in extending their faith as well.

Alanna Everhart, psychology senior and the vice president of Genesis Gospel Choir, understands firsthand the energy that gospel music can create.

“Gospel music has always been a part of a culture that has led movements,” Everhart said. “It’s a way for us to express ourselves and worship the Lord.”

Because of winter break, Genesis Gopel Choir was unable to join the army of other city choirs in the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. However, they are set to perform at campus mass on Feb.14, as well as hold their annual Gospel Fest in the first week of April, according to Everhart.

Once, the gospel was used to justify the practices of slavery. This weekend, however, the gospel was sung to connect to and honor the legacy of King.

As King said, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.”