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Orange County man channels Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire crowds

A man found his voice.

It had been lost for many years.

Rich Harmon was driving on a recent Saturday with his wife, Dominique. There was no particular destination for the drive. Just a diversion to get them out of their Trabuco Canyon house after so many weekends of sheltering in place to avoid the coronavirus.

They passed a Chinese restaurant, a movie theater and Rancho Santa Margarita’s City Hall, where they couldn’t help but notice a group of mostly young protesters had gathered. Rich and Dominique saw signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “RACISM KILLS.”

There was a microphone set up.

That’s when Dominique got an idea. They should stop and join the protest. And more than that, Rich should speak. Young people need to hear him, Dominique thought.

Rich pushed back at first. He hadn’t given the kind of speech she was talking about in a long time.

Finally, he parked the car.

First, he stood in the back of the crowd, listening. Rich Harmon is a quiet man. Anyone who wanted to speak was invited to take the mic.

Harmon walked slowly. He paused for a second and then said quietly the words he would like to say had come from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

What happened next will not soon be forgotten by the protesters and police who were there to hear it.

Harmon’s voice BOOMED with a pitch perfect impersonation of the former civil rights leader.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” Harmon said, quoting from King’s famous “Drum Major Instinct” speech. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”

By the time he finished, Harmon said he saw people in tears that day in Rancho Santa Margarita. Young white people approached him in awe, thanking him for the inspiration.

And now, he, too, has been inspired by George Floyd’s death in police custody and the subsequent protests. Rich Harmon has vowed to keep speaking. It has been too long.

Childhood trauma

He went to Catholic school in Newark, New Jersey, and he will never forget how brutal the nuns were.

His sisters were older, and they had told him stories of the nuns hanging them by their braids on nails on the wall of their classroom.

Harmon was 5 years old on his first day of school in first grade. He was so scared, he urinated in his pants on his way to school. His mother took him home to change.

So he was late.

As soon as his mother left, he said the nun had him stand in front of the class.

“She tore my shirt and beat me in front of the class,” he said. “There was hatred in her eyes … because I was late.”

He was the only African American in the room.

He said he began stuttering that day.

“People would think I was stupid,” Harmon said. “And when you hear that enough, I thought maybe I’m not so bright.”

‘Overcome it’

Harmon battled his own voice throughout his childhood.

The way he battled, that was his own genius idea. He began listening to King’s speeches.

“He was amazing with the way he can evoke emotions with his voice,” Harmon said. “I made my voice like him.”

He said in his mind, saying King’s words was like singing a song. He may have had trouble talking, but he could sing like King.

Rich said he found the perfect way to challenge himself.

In high school, he signed up to be the emcee at the talent show. An emcee who stutters?

“I would have to speak or be made fun of,” he said. “I knew I would overcome it.”

That talent show was the end of the stutter, he said.

Rich used his voice in two ways as a young man. He got a job in the food industry as a salesman. (Today he works overseeing a sales force for Chicken of the Sea). And he became an MLK impersonator at churches, schools and corporate events. He bought a black suit and spoke from the heart.

His sales job took him to Denver. In 2001, he was in church when the pastor asked everyone to greet three people they had never met.

Dominique tapped him on the shoulder. It was a year before he asked her out. And another year after that, they were married.

“I got set up by a pastor,” he said with a laugh.

‘Underlying tension’

Being an interracial couple (Dominique is white) has prompted a few nasty looks over the years, but it hasn’t been a big problem, Harmon said.

He said he tried to spin the ugly looks from others by telling his wife, “People find us attractive.”

They moved to Orange County briefly in the early 2000s. Rich remembers driving a convertible Mercedes on his own street, and he got pulled over by a police officer.

“What are you doing in this neighborhood?” he remembers the officer asking. “Where did you get this car?”

Harmon answered with a rehearsed story, which he has used when dealing with police. He mentioned that he had always dreamed of having that car since his college days – letting the officer know he went to college.

Rich and Dominique had two kids – Taylor, now 14, and Elijah, 10. They moved to the little gated community of Walden in Trabuco Canyon in 2018.

He said he always goes for walks in his neighborhood during the day, so the presence of a black man doesn’t prompt calls to the police.

“I feel that underlying tension,” Rich said.

‘Feel a responsibility’

He put the MLK suit away a long time ago. That great voice was silent.

Then he went for a drive with his wife and his life changed. He saw young people of all ethnic backgrounds taking to the streets.

“Oh, to be 24 again,” he said.

“I saw his passion coming out,” Dominique said. “The last few years, I haven’t heard him do that voice at all.”

She is quick to say her husband doesn’t impersonate King. “He invokes the spirit,” she said.

Harmon feels we are in a moment where his voice is suddenly important again. For the first time, he can sense people want to know how he feels about the issues of the day. He said the words of King, which he has studied his whole life, are so apt today.

“I feel a responsibility,” he said. “Now people want to hear from me.”

He said he has plans to speak at his church. And he hopes he can start getting booked at schools and for corporate events. He’s going to make a few YouTube videos of King speeches.

The suit still fits (he recently lost 50 pounds, and it’s a little loose). So he’s going to use it.

As he’s being interviewed, the booming voice suddenly comes out.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” he said, sounding like a man who found his voice.

Source: Orange County Register

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