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Morehouse Glee Club is part of MLK's legacy

By Patrick L. Riley, Special to CNN
updated 12:18 PM EDT, Sat October 15, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Morehouse Glee Club has been a historical staple through Dr. King's legacy
  • The Morehouse Glee Club sang at Dr. King's funeral
  • Morehouse Glee Club alumni include Maynard Jackson and Babatunde Olatunji

Tune in to CNN at 9 a.m. ET Sunday for live coverage of the unveiling of a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 48 years after the March on Washington and his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. And at 7 p.m. ET Sunday, coverage continues with a special look at King's writings in the CNN documentary "MLK Papers: Words That Changed a Nation."

(CNN) -- For nearly a full century before "Glee" became the TV destination for millions of "Gleeks," the Morehouse College Glee Club was navigating through time, history and pop culture in generation-defining style, including singing at the funeral of their Morehouse brother, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He was a Baptist preacher who loved music, who sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club and who married a professional singer (Coretta Scott King)," said Adair Tyrone Johnson, a 1990 graduate of Morehouse and president of The Maroon & White Fund, a nonprofit that augments the annual fundraising efforts of the college through social, cultural and educational events.

King is indeed the most well-known Morehouse Man. The private, all-male, historically black college in Atlanta is the alma mater of many African-American leaders, including filmmaker Spike Lee, actor Samuel L. Jackson, former Godfather's Pizza CEO and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, former Bank of America Chairman Walter E. Massey, first African-American mayor of Atlanta Maynard Jackson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan and former United States Surgeon General David Satcher.

King entered Morehouse as an early admission student in 1944. He was 15. In 1948, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. He continued his education at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Boston and later at Boston University's School of Theology, a trajectory of excellence in education that is considered a key part of the Morehouse mystique.

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In fact, the storied history of the Morehouse Glee Club is quite impressive for African-American men in the context of the times. During King's time there and aside all of his civil rights work, this choral group was making its own waves and still thrives, boasting a roster of alumni that includes Maynard Jackson, Nigerian drummer and recording artist Babatunde Olatunji, Broadway musician James Stovall, Christian hip-hop artist Canton Jones and Grammy-award-winning Gospel artist Byron Cage.

As a 1992 graduate of Morehouse and, for my four years there, a member of the Morehouse College Glee Club, I remember a quote from the Morehouse College Glee Club's current director, Dr. David E. Morrow: "It's more than a notion!"

I took it to mean that we can't take any of our current blessings for granted. We truly stand on the shoulders of some amazing men and women who, starting at the turn of the century, knew how to go for their dreams with no apologies. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands on many of their shoulders. For those of us here to still sing a song, so does the Morehouse College Glee Club.

Though its official founding was 1911, there was a professor named Miss Georgia M. Starr who in 1903 formed and directed a choral ensemble at Morehouse (which was then Atlanta Baptist College). It consisted of 10 to 12 students. Then in 1911 came Kemper Harreld. This Indiana native was a world-renowned violinist, who christened the music group the Morehouse College Glee Club. Under his direction, the glee club and the Morehouse College Glee Club Quartet performed at least three times for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"The glee club has always been about more than music," according to W. Floyd Ruffin, who graduated from Morehouse in 1954. The retired music educator, who was the last student accompanist under Harreld, added that Harreld was a perfectionist who insisted the young men talked, walked and performed in excellence.

After 42 years of service and initiating the glee club's strong tradition of excellence, Wendell Phillips Whalum Sr. took the helm. More commonly known as "Doc," Whalum served Morehouse College and the glee club until he passed away in 1987.

"Dr. Whalum gave, most of all, to the glee club an abiding love for coming together as brothers in song for the common good of offering music to the world," said Dr. Uzee Brown, a 1972 Morehouse graduate who currently is chairman of Morehouse's music department. Brown was also student director and accompanist under Whalum.

Under his leadership, the glee club performed for King's funeral. In March 1972, the glee club made a month-long tour of five African countries. The glee club sang for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and in the East Room of the White House with Coretta Scott King in 1978. In spring 1987, the glee club recorded "I'm Buildin' Me a Home," arranged by former glee club member Uzee Brown Jr., for the soundtrack of Spike Lee's movie "School Daze." And one year shy of my arrival at "The House," the glee club was featured on "The Cosby Show" accompanying Phylicia Rashad.

Morrow's turn then came. He has been serving for almost 25 years. "Like his predecessors, Dr. Morrow does not simply expect current glee clubbers to succeed in instrumental and vocal performance," said Jim Davis Jr., a 2004 graduate of Morehouse who is director of music ministry at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. "He demands that each member succeeds educationally and professionally."

Under his leadership, the group participated in the 1996 Summer Olympics closing ceremonies and sang at Super Bowl XXVIII with Natalie Cole. They also recorded music for Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" in 2008.

The Maroon & White Fund hosted a national tribute to the Morehouse College Glee Club's "100 Years in Song" in Manhattan earlier this month that included a Lincoln Center appearance. The special weekend was a national tribute to the Morehouse College Glee Club and was a reunion for the history books.

Johnson, also chairman of the National Centennial Benefit Concert Celebration, said many alumni shared a "remarkable legacy of excellence with the world."

It's only appropriate that when the world is watching the unveiling of the King memorial on the National Mall in Washington that the world-renowned Morehouse College Glee Club will be on hand.

In addition to the glee club singing at King's funeral, it also performed at the White House to kick off the fundraising for The King Center. "We also sing each January for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 'A King Celebration,' " Morrow said. "Morehouse College was key to Dr. King's intellectual development and the glee club is proud to represent that part of the tribute."

In fact, the men of Morehouse have a pre-dedication performance on Friday. The memorial concert and tribute to King at the Music Center at Strathmore will include performances by recording artists Eddie Levert, Dennis Edwards and Johnny Gill. The evening will be hosted by accomplished stage and film actor Avery Brooks and will include special presentations to music icon Stevie Wonder and Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, who will both receive the Morehouse Presidential Renaissance Medallion of Merit for their roles in spearheading the effort to recognize King's birthday as a national holiday.

"I cannot wait to see the look on our students' faces when they see all who come to celebrate Dr. King," said Morrow. "This monument will make Dr. King 'real' and 'tangible' for each student and will provide a memory fondly held for years to come."

"Brothers in song sing on," exclaims the Morehouse College Glee Club at the top of every concert. After 100 years, the song -- and the accompanying legacy of Morehouse and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- will continue.

In addition to being a Morehouse College Glee Club alum, Patrick L. Riley is a New York-based, independent writer.

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