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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Martin Luther King Let Freedom Ring Celebration 2008

Kennedy Center Concert Hall
January 21, 2008

Thank you Tony for that kind introduction… and thank you to everyone who made this evening possible. 

Let me take a moment to specifically acknowledge tonight’s performers—

the talented Denyce Graves;
the wonderful duo, Nuttin' But Stringz;
the uplifting Let Freedom Ring Choir and musicians;
the Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. for his outstanding musical direction;
and the distinguished Conductor J. Ernest Green with his 2008 Let Freedom Ring Celebration Orchestra.
Finally, I would like to extend a special thank you to Kennedy Center Chairman Steve Schwarzman and President Michael Kaiser for making the Millennium Stage performances available for everyone…

It is certainly an honor for me to be here each year.  The “Martin Luther King: Let Freedom Ring Celebration” is always an important reminder to reflect upon Dr. King’s legacy.  His call for love and justice…for peace and equality… rings out just as strongly today as it did during his lifetime.  And the urgency of the need for his inspiration is as great as ever.

While we have made great progress since Dr. King’s day, our local community, our country, and our world today are still plagued by inequality, violence, and oppression.  Dr. King’s messages of equality, peace, and justice resonate ever so poignantly.

But as he was always quick to note, it is not enough to simply talk about a better world—we must seize that very world for ourselves.  That “agonizing gulf between the ought and the is”—as Dr. King called it—will only be closed with our own actions.

So in that spirit, I would like to challenge all of us—myself included—to contemplate how we can better align our professed values with our actions.  If in theory we believe in justice, in democracy, in human rights, and in peace, we must actively and intentionally engage in the struggle to bring these values into being… Dr. King was very clear about this.

In his beautiful treatise, Strength to Love, he writes that:

To cooperate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor.  Our most fruitful course is to stand firm with courageous determination, move forward nonviolently amid obstacles and setbacks, accept disappointments, and cling to hope.
Thus we ‘cannot stand idly by.’  Because of injustice, we must persevere forward towards a future actively shaped by our ideals.

With those thoughts in mind, we celebrate Dr. King each year by honoring a person or group of people who have in fact lived their ideals.  Here to tell you more about the history of the Georgetown University Coach John Thompson, Jr. Legacy of A Dream Award, is an impressive young woman, Georgetown University sophomore Lillian Green.  An active community service volunteer, Lillian is a member of the Black Student Alliance, the Ailing Mothers and Fathers Support Network, and our school’s 2007-2008 Martin Luther King Committee. Lillian…

 * * * * *

Thank you again Lillian… Underscoring what you said, I would just like to thank John Thompson, Jr., again, for his service and sustained engagement with our community...and for his example of excellence.  We are truly proud to have him as a member of our Georgetown family...

As such, I am truly pleased to be with you all tonight to present the 2008 Coach John Thompson, Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award.  This year’s recipient—the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton—has truly followed Dr. King’s call to match our words with actions.

Starting back in 1963, in fact, she helped to organize his March on Washington.  Since then she has continued to work for the public good, fighting for civil rights in many forms, including her passionate commitment to full political and voting rights for the District of Columbia.  In short, she has been a champion for human rights.

I am especially honored to recognize Congresswoman Norton tonight, because she is also a valued member of our Georgetown community.  A tenured professor of the Georgetown Law Center, she has been teaching our students for more than two decades, and has inspired many of them to pursue public service themselves.

Congresswoman Norton’s commitment to achieving a more just society reflects her appreciation of the connectivity of our human family.  Dr. King called this our “inescapable network of mutuality.”  He poetically noted that “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny.”

Congresswoman Norton’s commitment to this belief is reflected in her work to stop the atrocities in Darfur , to ensure security here at home, and to help her constituents realize the American Dream through expanded access to higher education through the DC Tuition Assistance Grants program, fair employment, and home ownership tax incentives.

At this point in time, it is particularly appropriate to focus on her tireless fight for District of Columbia voting rights.  She works hard every single day advocating for the enfranchisement of the people she represents.  She made impressive progress last year by passing legislation for voting representation in the House of Representatives.  I have no doubt that she will push the Senate to reconsider this legislation as soon as they reconvene tomorrow.

In this spirit of social improvement and social progress, Dr. King reminds us that, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  Congresswoman Norton’s work for a more equitable, peaceful, and just world embodies Dr. King’s legacy in this respect.   Her actions back up Dr. King’s assertion that I cannot reach my highest potential until you reach yours—and vice versa.  At its heart, progress is a symbiotic and social process.

Throughout her career of public service—which no doubt will continue for many years to come—Congresswoman Norton has personified this commitment to humankind, to equality and justice for all. Fighting for human rights and championing full democratic rights for the District of Columbia , she demonstrates for us all the intensity of commitment that Dr. King taught and inspired.

It is therefore with great honor, that I present this year’s Coach John Thompson, Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award to the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton.

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