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MLK Celebration Honors Speechwriter, Features Bobby McFerrin

January 17, 2012 – Bobby McFerrin performed lively scat singing and Georgetown honored Martin Luther King Jr.’s draft speechwriter Jan. 16 at the 10th annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration at the Kennedy Center.

The university and the Kennedy Center have offered the event as an annual gift to the Washington, D.C. community to pay tribute to the legacy of King since 2003.

Clarence Jones, King’s advisor and attorney as well as his speechwriter, received the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award in honor of his contribution to the civil rights movement.

Buses A-Comin’

With President and Michelle Obama and members of the King family in the audience, the celebration opened with the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir singing an arrangement of  “The Buses Are A-Comin’” – by the event’s music director, Rev. Nolan Williams Jr.

Williams, commissioned to arrange the piece by Georgetown, explained that the song was first sung by the Freedom Riders in the 1960s after they were arrested in Mississippi and put into a maximum-security prison for riding buses through the South to protest racial segregation.

As the choir sang, students marched down the aisles with signs such as “I Am a Freedom Rider” and “I Am a Man.”

The choir is made up of members of the university and Washington, D.C., communities.

“What they were saying [with the song] was ‘You can lock us up, but you can’t stop the movement,’ ” Williams said.

Reclaiming its Soul

“Those of us assembled here this evening are the beneficiaries of all those persons who struggled, often 24/7, to ensure that America would reclaim its soul,” Jones said after receiving his award from former basketball head coach John Thompson Jr. and Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.

“It is important to remember such people and their stories,” he said, mentioning activists such as Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and slain civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Jones is a writer-in-residence and visiting professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Extraordinary Role

The scholar teaches a class at Stanford called From Slavery to Obama, which chronicles the civil rights movement and those who died in the cause.

“As has been said by others, if the lions don’t tell their stories the hunters will get all the credit,” he said. “I want to be sure the lions tell their stories.”

DeGioia spoke of Jones as “a man who throughout his life has played an extraordinary role in the promotion and protection of civil rights.

“[He] was one of the architects of the most significant movements for justice in our nation’s history,” he said.

Still Work to Do

Williams said the work executed by activists and leaders who fought against social and racial inequality shouldn’t be viewed as the end of an era.

“We lose sight of the fact that there is still work to do,” he said. “[If you] believe like King, social injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

McFerrin incorporated the audience and showcased his wide-ranging vocal talents, using his voice to imitate instruments while performing a capella.

He performed a version of “Blackbird” by the Beatles, as well as “Down By the Riverside” with the choir. 

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