Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III

2018 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient

Transcript from Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III’s speech at Living the Dream…Singing the Dream, the 30th Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.


The Choral Arts Society of Washington began honoring individuals who embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s spirit of reconciliation, peace, brotherhood, and sisterhood with the annual Humanitarian Award in 2004. The award is presented with great joy at this celebratory concert each year. Previous awardees in the award’s 15-year-history include Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, the Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian, Bryan Stevenson, and Ms. Ruby Bridges. And we are very pleased that previous awardees, Ms. Marian Wright Edelman and Dr. Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell are here with us tonight.

We also take time to remember those awardees who have passed away, but whose work lives on, including Dr. Dorothy Height, Julian Bond, Nelson Mandela, and the founder of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Mr. Norman Scribner.

There is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation, seeped in its history. And there are a few things as noble as honoring our ancestors by remembering. Those words by Dr. Lonnie Bunch are now etched into stone at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, just a few blocks from here. Yes, you may clap.

Dr. Bunch is the living embodiment of the belief that history can be a powerful force for good, because he is truly one. Growing up in New Jersey, Dr. Bunch remembers going to Woolworth’s, shopping with his mother, followed by enjoying a hamburger at the lunch counter. Yes, one time though, in the late 1950s, while he was visiting relatives in North Carolina, he ran lightly ahead of his aunt as he saw Woolworth’s come into view, making a beeline for the lunch counter, thinking of the experiences he often enjoyed with his mother back home in New Jersey. Yet after sitting down at the counter, big white hands picked young Lonnie up and pulled him into the colored section where he had to stand to eat. And after that day, he said a Woolworth’s hamburger just never tasted the same. Years later, Dr. Lonnie Bunch was instrumental in helping bring that Woolworth’s lunch counter, the site of the Greensboro sit-ins, to the American History Museum.

In a career dedicated to, “giving voice to the voiceless,” Dr. Lonnie Bunch’s work as an educator and historian enables all of us to better understand the issues of race and equality, issues that are central to the American experience. As a reflection of his life’s work and over a decade of leadership, the National Museum of African American History and Culture now stands to remind us of America’s ideals and broken promises. It allows us to see our commonalities. It allows us to celebrate, but it demands that we all still struggle that we all “need to fight the good fight.” And so, it is in the spirit of giving voice to the voiceless and the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all that I am truly honored to present tonight’s Choral Arts Society of Washington Humanitarian Award to Dr. Lonnie Bunch.


Well, you don’t want to see a historian cry. My goodness. I got to tell you, I’m so honored to receive this award from the Choral Arts Society. And it’s made even more special by the presence of Carla Hayden, who I admire so much, and she has already transformed the Library of Congress. So again, join me in thanking Carla Hayden.

I have to be honest, when I first learned of this award, and I looked at the list of people who received this award, I knew there had been a mistake because I think they thought I was Ralph Bunche (that only works with people of a certain age). So I, but I have to be honest, I am so humbled to receive this Humanitarian Award, but especially touched this year as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss, but ultimately the legacy and contemporary meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.

With this recognition, you are not only honoring me, but you’re honoring the power of history. You’re honoring the importance of remembering, the importance of remembering those like Dr. Martin Luther King, who challenged America to live up to its stated ideals. Like those who believed in an America that often didn’t believe in them. You remember those who faced hatred and racism and violence, but whose belief in justice and equality move them forward, despite the dangers, to make, to demand, to hope, to pray for a freer and fairer America. Candidly, my work, my career, my life has been defined by a need to help America grapple candidly with the divide of race and to help us all find peace, reconciliation, and common ground. So, tonight I accept this award, not on my behalf, but on the behalf of my parents. My parents, who never let their struggles with racism and discrimination make them bitter. My parents who believed that one day there would be an America that would live up to our hopes and dreams and expectations. So, thank you for honoring me, but more importantly, thank you for honoring them with this award. Thank you.