Courier Staff Writer
Simon Estes sat quietly through each performance, soft hands folded and a necklace reading “Try God” gleaming on his chest.
When he took his seat on the Ottumwa High School auditorium stage Monday night, his booming bass-baritone voice rang through the room, silencing the audience except for bursts of appraisal during his speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Estes, now a world-renowned opera singer, was born in 1938 in Centerville and lived with discrimination throughout his childhood.
“When I was growing up, we were called ‘colored’ in those days,” he said. “Later we became Negro with a little ‘N,’ then a capital ‘N.’ Then we became black. Then we became Afro-Americans. Then African-Americans. I often said, ‘I don’t know what I am, but I do know I am a child of God’s.’”
Growing up in Centerville, black children were not allowed to swim in the swimming pool with white children. Eventually, the rules were changed to allow black children to swim in the pool from 9-11 a.m. on Saturdays.
“But once I got out, they put more disinfectant in the water,” Estes said. “I didn’t know this until I was writing my autobiography ... about 12 years ago.”
Estes would come home and tell his mother how a white boy had hit him, or called him “the N word.”
“My mother said, ‘Get on your knees and pray for that boy,’” Estes said. “When you’re 10 years old, you say, ‘Wait a minute, mother, you don’t understand. He hit me. He called me that name.’”
In 1965 Estes started singing in opera houses around the world — but not in the United States.
In tears, he called his mother and told her he wasn’t allowed to sing in opera houses in his own country.
“My wise mother said, ‘Son, remember what I told you when you were a little boy,’” Estes said. “‘You get down on your knees and you pray for those people.’”
Today, Estes has sung in every major opera house in the U.S.
“Martin Luther King will always live until he’s with Jesus because his spirit has not died,” Estes said. “His body, yes, has been taken away from us and his wonderful wife and children ... He will be someday in Heaven with Jesus and all those beautiful angels up there and he won’t have to worry anymore about fighting for justice, equality.”
Estes said his mother and father taught him never to hate.
“Centerville was no different from Ottumwa, Albia, Bloomfield, cities in Nebraska, any place in the United States,” Estes said.
Estes was a student at the University of Iowa in 1963 when King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
“Martin was a man that really taught the example that Jesus told us: love our enemies,” Estes said. “And as Jesus said, ‘If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek but don’t fight back.’ Martin was a man who believed absolutely in non-violence, even though his life was taken because of violence and because of hate.”
An hour before Estes was to sing at a performance in Canada, he learned of King’s assassination.
“I was just dumbfounded, as I’m sure all of us were,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do that evening. It was too late to cancel the concert.”
Estes said he changed his repertoire at the last moment, because he “did not feel like singing happy songs.”
Estes said he was grateful that so many young people came out Monday night to remember King.
“He was a man who would have been very, very, very proud to realize that we have reached a certain area that a man of color could be elected president of the United States, not just once, but re-elected,” he said. “It demonstrates how far we’ve come in the United States that people not judge somebody by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, their values, their principles, their faith.
“I believe that God made us all with different colors, different shapes of our eyes and different nationalities to test the true character of each individual. Are we able to love someone even if they don’t look the way we look?”
Estes said he did not think he would see “a man of color, a woman of color, or a woman, period” elected as president in his lifetime.
“I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was put on this earth to help our great country become even a greater country,” Estes said. “Let us all move forward this evening with understanding in our hearts and remember what this man did.”