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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Martin Luther King Let Freedom Ring Celebration 2009

Kennedy Center Concert Hall
January 19, 2009

Thank you Andrea 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—

• One of the iconic voices of our age, Aretha Franklin, whose participation here tonight truly honors us;

• The absolutely electrifying and moving duo, Nuttin' But Stringz;

• Our two local talents, soloists Issachah Savage and Brandi Sutton;

• The always uplifting Let Freedom Ring Choir; and

• The Rev. Nolan Williams Jr., who provided truly outstanding musical direction.

Finally, I would like to extend a special “thank you” to Kennedy Center Chairman Steve Schwarzman, President Michael Kaiser, and Vice President of Education Darrell Ayers, for making the Millennium Stage performances available for everyone…

On behalf of Georgetown I would like to welcome everyone to tonight’s festivities. We gather this year—to honor the life and legacy of a true American hero—on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration. Tomorrow at noon, our nation’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, will take the Oath of Office. And this truly historic and extraordinary moment in the history of the United States makes tonight’s celebration ever more poignant.

It’s quite fitting that we gather at the Kennedy Center—named for another US President who energized our nation…and who gave us great hope for a more just and equal society. We, of course, refer to his vision as the “New Frontier.”

We know that no one better articulated—or led—the call for greater justice, peace, and equality, than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He looked at the world as it was—and challenged it to become what it could, and should, be. In his last Sunday morning sermon, he said to the congregation gathered here in Washington at the National Cathedral: “There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

I believe—given the incredible national and global challenges and difficulties that confront us—this is the moral imperative our country feels in this moment. And as we step forward into a new chapter in our history, we stand at the edge of a new “New Frontier.” We are called to become a nation that more closely resembles the “promised land”—about which Dr. King so eloquently spoke—and I think tonight is no better time to ask ourselves how we will answer that call.

Each year, we recognize a person or group who have heeded this call, and have carried forth Dr. King’s legacy. Here to tell you more about the history of the Georgetown University John Thompson Jr. Legacy of A Dream Award, is an impressive young man, Georgetown University senior, Canaan McCaslin. Dedicated to social justice, Canaan has volunteered his time to serve countless individuals, from homeless children in the Dominican Republic…to students on the Georgetown campus who are engaging issues of diversity. It’s in young people like Canaan that we can find an even deeper hope for our nation’s future…for a realization of the dream.

It’s truly my pleasure to introduce to you, Canaan McCaslin…

* * * *

Thank you Canaan…

As Canaan just indicated, the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award recognizes the larger historical narrative that links all of us as members of society. The accomplishments and victories of each generation lift up the next; and the legacy of individuals—like Dr. King—help to guide us forward, closer to peace and justice.

The member of the Georgetown family, for whom this award is named—John Thompson Jr. — gave me a gift at Christmas time that I think perfectly captures this notion. He gave me a sweatshirt, and across the chest, it reads:

"Rosa Parks sat…so Martin could walk…Martin walked so Obama could run…Obama ran so our children can fly."

Contained in this simple phrase is an illustration of the historical narrative I just mentioned. We are all the inheritors of a legacy that has been passed, person-to-person, for the last half-century. We are united in a collective endeavor to achieve a more perfect world. And as Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and President-elect Obama have done, we must also take up the mantel of our predecessors and fight for what is good…what is right…what is just.

One individual who has done just this, is tonight’s honoree, the recipient of the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award. She is a woman who has dedicated her career to serving the public good, and advocating on behalf of the disadvantaged. It is through her work that she has truly carried on Dr. King’s legacy.

A contemporary of Dr. King, she was the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar association. She began her career as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi…and in 1968 went on to become counsel for the Poor People's Campaign, which Dr. King, Jr. began organizing just before his death.

After that, upon the recommendations of Dr. King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, she founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm, and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund. In this latest role, as founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, Mrs. Edelman has improved the rights and lives of countless children—and has given them the opportunity to discover and achieve their dreams.

It is truly an honor to have her here tonight…and it is with great joy—great gratitude—that I present this year’s John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award to Marian Wright Edelman.


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