There was an abrupt end to the chatter in the grand foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Monday night when 20 journalists rushed into the room and simultaneously pointed their cameras at an empty balcony. A few silent moments of anticipation passed before the theater erupted with applause to welcome President Barack Obama and the first lady as they gracefully entered the building.
This was the scene at the 10th annual “Let Freedom Ring” concert, held in the Kennedy Center every Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate his life and his immense influence. The event also serves to honor one person who is the recipient of the Coach John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, an award that recognizes a person who continues to carry out the mission of King and who embodies his ideals.
Though the Obamas briefly captured the attention of the crowd, at the first note sung by the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir, the theater quickly fell silent. The choir sang a hymn as about 20 people marched down the aisles holding picket signs with phrases such as “I’m a Freedom Rider” and “We shall overcome.” The crowd was visibly moved as the song ended and the performers solemnly held up the black power symbol.
The number, directed by Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. and featuring Georgetown student soloists Alex Pelle (COL ’13) and Annise Pickens (NHS ’15) was called “Buses Are A-Coming.” Williams revealed that the number was inspired by the story of the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who attempted to ride buses into the segregated south. The students were attacked and then placed in a maximum security prison by the governor of Mississippi. The song was written by the students while incarcerated and sung to taunt the guards.
After the choir sang a jazz-inspired version of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” featuring soloist Nova Nelson, The Coach John Thompson,Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award was presented to Clarence B. Jones. Jones was an advisor, attorney and speech writer for King. Following a long standing ovation, 81-year-old Jones approached the microphone and immediately launched into a story of running home to his mother when he was 10 years old and had just been chased and verbally harassed by a group of white boys. His mother responded by telling him sternly, “God made you. You are beautiful.”
Jones then compared this revelation and reevaluation of self-image he had at age 10 with the day that Barack Obama won the presidential election in November of 2008. On that day his mind went to all his friends who were not alive to witness that moment and who had sacrificed their lives to make it possible. He ended with some personal words that King had shared with him and accepted the award on behalf of all his friends who were “wintertime soldiers” and stood strong during the hardest of times.
After Jones, 10-time Grammy Award Winner Bobby McFerrin took the stage. Sitting in a chair under a single spotlight, McFerrin wowed the crowd by using just his chest and his feet as instruments. He barely spoke any intelligible words but his unique rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as well as his ability to involve the audience quickly had everyone on their feet and singing. Once McFerrin and the choir had taken their final bows, Obama, with Michelle by his side, waved goodbye to the crowd and exited the theater to boisterous chants of “Four more years.”