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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

The 9th Annual "Let Freedom Ring!" Kennedy Center Celebration

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
January 17, 2011

Good evening.  It’s an honor to be with you this evening for our Ninth Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Let Freedom Ring Kennedy Center Celebration.  We’re especially excited to be celebrating this year, the 25th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday.  This is truly an extraordinary event and we’re so pleased to be joined by some exceptional guests and performers.  I would like to thank leaders of the Kennedy Center, and especially President Michael Kaiser and Vice President for Education, Darrell Ayers for their tremendous support.  I’d also like to extend my gratitude to our Ward 7 community partners for joining us—and for your inspiring commitment to education, health, and development in Washington, D.C. 

We’ve come together tonight to remember a remarkable American, an individual who—through his heartfelt words and courageous actions—shared his dream for a better nation, a new kind of community.  His vision helped to create this new context, one in which we strive to look beyond race and class; to live, learn, and flourish together; and to seek equality and justice for all. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, here…together…this evening.

The Let Freedom Ring Choir represents a part of the world Dr. King imagined.   Of the 140 members who share their talent with us tonight, many come from throughout the Washington, DC community, representing numerous churches, including the Metropolitan Baptist Church, Greater Bethlehem Temple, First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, First Tabernacle Church of God, and many others. The rest are Georgetown students, faculty, and staff from all walks of life. 

They have rehearsed together at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church—which has ties to the very first African-American church in the District, founded in 1839. There, the Choir practices together and discovers more about their setting, and the invaluable contributions of this Church in the history of the struggle for civil rights.

In this choir, and in all who have joined us tonight, we can see that the world imagined by Dr. King starts with the initiative of individuals, willing to come together, willing to work together.  We call upon this spirit of togetherness when our nation feels divided, when violence attempts to strike at the heart of liberty, when the road to progress feels slow.  This is when we need to remember Dr. King most, united in our commitment to peace, justice, equality and love.

It is for this reason that nine years ago, Georgetown inaugurated the John Thompson Jr., Legacy of a Dream Award, to recognize significant contributions in community service and social justice that reflects the values and ideals of Dr. King. John  Thompson, Jr., served as our head men’s basketball coach from 1972-1999.  During his now, nearly forty years on the Georgetown Hilltop, Coach Thompson has been a prophetic voice, a courageous witness, an inspiring presence, in the spirit of Dr. King. It is an honor for me to be here with him tonight.

For our 2011 award, we are here to recognize another extraordinary leader, whose spirit, fearlessness, and commitment to human dignity, resonates so deeply with the legacy of Dr. King.  We honor tonight: Dr. Joseph Lowery. 

“The Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” and a leading civil rights voice for 7 decades,  Dr. Lowery was a close friend and colleague of Dr. King and was instrumental in convening the American civil rights movement.  This began, for Dr. Lowery, in a small office in Mobile, Alabama, with the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization that led the movement to desegregate buses and public accommodations. 

Hard at work as a civil rights advocate, in 1965, he was chosen by Dr. King to chair the delegation delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery march to Alabama governor, George Wallace.  As I share with you a few of his many achievements, I hope we all appreciate the scope of Dr. Lowery’s impact. 

He has served as the president of the Interdemoninational Ministerial Alliance, and led a movement in Nashville to desegregate public accommodations.  

A United Methodist Minister, for 18 years he was pastor of the Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta and with Dr King, he co-founded and later for 20 years served as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He has led many peace delegations around the world, protests for environmental justice, and has worked for farmers’ rights.

A recipient of the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2009, he offered the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

He is a rare public figure who continues, in his well-known style, to speak truth to power, to fight for fairness, and to stand up for the defenseless.  As a leader, community-builder, and defender of human rights, we are honored to award, Dr. Lowery, the 2011 John Thompson Legacy of a Dream Award for his contributions that honor and sustain the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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