The last to sing for King; Port Arthur native was with choir for MLK event

Published 10:04 am Thursday, April 5, 2018

In 1968, future opera singer Richard Perkins was a student at Prairie View A&M when a tired bus driver brought him and fellow choir members to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Little did we know that Dr. Martin Luther King was there,” Perkins, a Port Arthur native, said.

In 1968, Port Arthur native Richard Perkins was a member of Prairie View A&M choir and had the opportunity to perform for Martin Luther King Jr. just weeks before King was assassinated.

The choir was called on to perform for the civil rights activist just two weeks before he was assassinated. Now, 50 years later, Perkins and others have been called to sing at the MLK Luminary Awards marking the anniversary of King’s death.

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“We were called together to a room to sing,” he said, adding that the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson were also there.

King was in town during the Memphis sanitation workers strike.

“We walked into the room and there he was slumped over the chair. He was really tired,” he said. “He had been there twice — this was his second visit — and the man was really beat.”

Perkins was the bass section leader and vice president of the choir that year.

“It was kind of dark with one of those little table lamps. “And I remember being drunk,” he said in a prepared statement.

The group performed Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” but as they left that motel room, they had no idea that they would be the last choir to sing for King — or that he would later be shot on the balcony of that very room, Krysta Coffey, Perkins’ girlfriend, said.

Perkins wasn’t overwhelmed at seeing the now famous activist at the time.

“People in the South saw the movement as being troublesome,” he said. “We didn’t want to rouse populace. Some of us were followers and sympathizers of Martin Luther King.”

Perkins said it was years later that the idea of King as an African American icon was adopted; in short, he wasn’t that impressed at the time.

The Prairie View A Cappella Choir was known as one of the top choirs and showed that African Americans could sing top-caliber opera and classical music, Coffey said.

The group finally has its recognition. Years ago when video was shown of the choir performing they were not properly identified but that has changed, he said.

The choir went on to finish their tour and on April 4, 1968 learned that King had been assassinated at the very hotel where they performed for him.

Perkins and others had a chance to perform at the MLK Luminary Awards on Monday highlighting the contributions of the sanitation workers of that era who struck in 1968, making the simple statement, “I Am a Man,” Coffey said.

Other participants at the awards included LaVar Burton, Kirk Whalum, Justin Merrick, Camille Quarrels, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and others.

“Additionally, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, CBS interviewed Richard Perkins and other members of the group,” she said. “Taping was done in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and will air Wednesday during CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News.”