WASHINGTON -- At the Kennedy Center in Washington on Monday night, an eclectic group of over two thousand Americans paused to celebrate five extraordinary people with at least one thing in common: their sacrifices in the fight against hate have left them icons.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, Representative John Lewis, Jose Antonio Vargas and Daniel Pearl all received honors and fanfare from the Anti-Defamation League as it ended its centennial celebration this week with the uplifting concert.
The National Symphony Orchestra bestowed on each recipient a poignant and accessible musical selection: famous pieces, some classical and some pop cultural, but all in major and with hopeful notes the ADL considers key to its message against all forms of hate.
"I believe that one person's voice can make all the difference," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jerusalem Post. "Each of the individuals we recognized on our centennial have made a difference through their actions and their caring, bringing us one step closer to the dream of a world without hate."
The honorees were each asked to stand after four actors explained to the crowd why their struggles mattered, and were deserving of praise.
Lewis, now a congressman of over 25 years, is one of the few surviving leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of SNCC at age 23, and was one of the original Freedom Riders.
Lewis spoke at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. And in 1965, he led a march in Selma, Alabama, that led to the horrific, fully televised 'Bloody Sunday' beating of blacks by local police— and the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Vargas, a former journalist, lived for years under the fear of deportation as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Despite having to hide his legal status, Vargas earned himself successful positions in journalism— a platform he ultimately used to share his struggle, through a groundbreaking piece that declared his status and explained why Congress should act to grant recognition to those living undocumented in America.
The Shepards lost their son, Matthew, after he struggled with being gay in rural America. His struggle was tragic, but became a national trauma when, in 1998, two openly homophobic young men beat Shepard to his death on the side of a Wyoming country road.
Dennis Shepard urged local court to show his son's killers a degree of mercy in sentencing that they refused Matthew, ultimately saving them from the death penalty. And in the years since, the two parents have successfully fought for legislation that recognizes hate crimes as particularly heinous acts in the eyes of the law.
And Pearl, a former journalist, received his honor posthumously. Weeks after September 11, 2001 Pearl traveled to Pakistan to cover fallout from the attacks in New York and Washington. Seeking an interview with a Pakistani terrorist, he was kidnapped, and facing his death, Pearl was filmed declaring his proud status as a Jew.
Their stories may be familiar to many, but not to all. In Kennedy's theater pews before the show began, Lewis greeted a group of students from Georgia— his home state— who only knew their congressman by name. He is from another time.
The Anti-Defamation League has held nineteen similar concerts in recent years. A non-governmental organization, the ADL was originally founded in 1913 with a mission to fight anti-Semitism. That mission has since been expanded to battle all forms of bigotry.