Georgetown University’s 13th annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration Jan. 19 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and — with Natalie Cole as the shining star — brought the full house to its feet, singing “Oh Happy Day.”
At the event, Georgetown presented the John Thompson, Jr., Legacy of a Dream Award to George Jones, chief executive officer of Bread for the City, which assists residents with food, clothing, medical care and legal and social services.
Music director Nolan Williams, Jr., led the Let Freedom Ring Choir, made up mostly Georgetown University students, in introducing his original piece for this Martin Luther King, Jr., Day: “I’ve Got a Right (to Vote).” The song included quotations from actors as historical figures, such as Frederick Douglas, President Lyndon Johnson and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Greeting the guests in the concert hall, the Kennedy Center’s new president Deborah Rutter noted how Washington, D.C., President John Kennedy and King come today on MLK Day with this “living memorial to a fallen president” that hosts the tribute each year. She also said she had just met Georgetown University President John DeGioia for the first time.
In his salute to awardee George Jones of Break for the City, DeGioia looked up to retired basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., and Jones in their box seats and spoke of his friendship with Thompson and Jones’s “spirit of love” that was “fueled by King.”
With that, Cole took the stage — with red roses on the piano — and never let go. Her songs included “Mr. Melody,” “Inseparable,” “What a Difference a Day Makes,” the still moving “Unforgettable” (with video clips of her and her father Nat King Cole) and “Miss You Like Crazy,” a tribute to “those we lost and the legacy of King.” Finishing up, Cole said, “Everyone knows this one,” and belted out “Everlasting Love.”
As an encore, it was hard to top Cole’s and the celebration’s version of “Oh Happy Day.” Suddenly, dancers dressed in white rushed back and forth along the aisles to the startled delight of everyone. “When Jesus washed . . . my sins away, yeah . . . He taught me how to watch . . . fight and pray, fight and pray . . . and living rejoicing every, everyday.” Yeah, pretty hard to top that this day. I think I saw Martin smiling.