Keeping MLK’s spirit of hope alive in a unique way

Cornelius Johnson, who works in Information Services at St. Jude, keeps Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory alive in a very unique way.

I was 5 years old when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in downtown Memphis. I remember looking out the front window of my home during that time to see National Guard troops and tanks rolling down my family's North Memphis street.

That scene played out just a few miles from the St. Jude campus, where I’ve worked with audio/visual services since November 1999.

While in school at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, I became intrigued with Dr. King after portraying him in theater productions and plays. I wanted to learn more about the civil rights leader, which led me to read his autobiography.

In the years since college, I’ve continued to portray Dr. King in different community events. I perform a rendition of his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech for churches and groups in the Memphis area.

Dr. King delivered the two-and-a-half-minute speech at Mason Temple less than 24 hours before he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. King was rushed to the emergency room of St. Joseph's Hospital, now the present site of the Barry/Longinotti Building on the St. Jude campus.

Before coming to St. Jude, I worked in video production for a local cable company. I often worked on community projects, one of which involved an event at Mason Temple.

No one was in the building and we were setting up equipment. I remember standing in front of the podium where Dr. King stood and thinking “This is incredible. I might be standing where he was standing.”

I also played Dr. King during a Black History Month reenactment at the National Civil Rights Museum. As visitors walked past, I sat in a jail cell quietly writing a letter in homage to Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” I visit the museum often and had the humbling experience of standing on the balcony where Dr. King last stood.

I began to understand more about what Dr. King stood for and what he endured. In my own small way, I'm hoping to help keep his memory and that dream alive.

When I’m portraying Dr. King, I leave out no details—dressing in suit and tie and echoing his expressions and deliberate speaking pace.

Sometimes I find myself in the car and I’ll just start saying the speech. Depending on the mood I’m in, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

Watch Cornelius Johnson portray Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

About the author

Cornelius Johnson, Jr. works in the Information Services Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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