The Choral Arts and Washington Performing Arts Societies offered a musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Kennedy Center. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

For nearly three decades, a diverse mosaic of voices has filled the concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with stanzas of hope offered in tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday night was no exception when the  Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir performed  a program in King’s memory entitled “Living the Dream…Singing the Dream.”

“This concert is my favorite event the whole year because we are all together making this joyous noise and there is such an important message,” said Scott Tucker, Artistic Director for the Choral Arts Society. “Bryan Stevenson said these things need a sound track and this is our contribution.”

Stevenson, a Montgomery, Ala. lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, received the society’s 2016 Humanitarian Award. In previous years, that honor has gone to Civil Rights veterans like Dorothy Height, Julian Bond and  Nelson Mandela. The Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of King’s top strategists, was honored last year.

Singers from The Choral Arts Society of Washington and Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel at Kennedy Center Singers from The Choral Arts Society of Washington and Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel at Kennedy Center. Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post

“Dr. King would want us to not leave a space like this…de-energized. He would want us to do something. He had proximity,”  Stevenson told the gathering.  “If we really want to honor Dr. King we have to move closer to the places where there is inequality and oppression and injustice…Dr. King’s legacy calls us to do uncomfortable things.”

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund,  presented Stevenson with the award. She said later in an interview, “There is a new generation of servant leaders that are growing and we need to make sure that we are passing the torch of leadership.”

“Everybody keeps sitting around and asking when is Dr. King is coming back,” Edelman said.”Dr. King is not coming back. We are it….We are the young people running freedom schools and we have all of the power we need in our community and we need to get with it.”

Debra L. Kraft, Executive Director of the Choral Arts Society, said the organization has been bringing together a diverse group of singers for musical tributes since 1969, the year after King was assassinated.

“It’s been a  long journey and just when you think you have made inroads, you find out that you need to keep doing it,” Kraft said. “The people who are singing have hope. They want to have proximity and that is why they keep doing it.”

During the concert, Tucker and Stanley J. Thurston, Artistic Director for the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men, Women and Children of the Gospel, took turns directing music that ranged from a selection with lyrics composed by Mother Teresa to a traditional spiritual entitled, “I’ve Been In De Storm So Long.” But it was the Children of the Gospel Choir, directed by Michele Fowlin, that shook up things in the concert hall.

The event ended with this massive choir of blacks and whites, old and young, singing one of King’s favorite songs: “If I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living shall not be in  vain.”


Marian Wright Edelman and Debra L. Kraft flank 2016 Humanitarian awarde winner Bryan Stevenson. Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post