The significance of Sunday's annual tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is especially poignant for the Rev. Nolan Williams Jr., music director for this year's "Let Freedom Ring" celebration.
"It will not be lost on any of us the irony and significance of celebrating King on the day of President Obama's private swearing-in and the day before the public inauguration," he explained.
Sponsored by the Kennedy Center and Georgetown University, the free event features Smokey Robinson, along with the Let Freedom Ring Celebration Choir.
Smokey Robinson will perform solo for 30 minutes before joining the 150-voice choir in songs of celebration.
|'Let Freedom Ring'|
|Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW|
|When: 6 p.m. Sunday|
|Info: Free tickets, up to two per person, distributed at 4 p.m. in the Hall of Nations on a first-come, first-served basis; 800-444-1324; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org|
"I think Smokey will bring a lot of nostalgia to the occasion," Williams said. "He'll certainly take us down Motown memory lane. The string of hits that he has written and produced will help us end the program on a fitting note."
Motown's memory lane was not smoothly paved, however. Artists and civil rights activists like Robinson fought against discrimination -- and for equality -- in the music industry. Too many times, these award-winning stars were performing in venues that, were they not headliners, they would not be able to access.
Every year, Williams focuses on a different aspect of the civil rights movement in order to give it new expression. This time around, he was inspired to write a song titled "Birmingham Letter" with the subtitle "We Fight for Human Rights." The profound message of a letter written by King while incarcerated in that Alabama city is at the heart of Williams' composition: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
"Smokey lived that civil rights struggle; he sang to it and wrote songs to it," Williams pointed out. "That's one of the reasons why, to my understanding, he focused so much on love.
"He saw love as such a powerful element that overcomes so much that is negative. I think then, that it is appropriate to have him this year. I think his segment will be a love fest."