Students honor Martin Luther King Jr. in oratorical contest

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Washington, January 15, 2018 | comments
Alex Koma

Martin Luther King Jr. spent his life fighting injustice — and students competing in Prince William County’s annual oratorical contest believe people of all creeds and colors need to have that same sort of conviction in these troubled times.

The 28th edition of the annual event, held Jan. 15 at the Hylton Memorial Chapel and designed to honor the civil rights icon’s legacy, challenged county students to consider King “in his own words: yesterday, today and tomorrow.” In the view of the six middle and high school students who spoke at the event, sponsored by the Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., King’s philosophy of action in the face of inequality should continue to inspire people today.

“Dr. King fervently believed in the power of an individual to make a difference,” said Zoree Jones, a sophomore at Patriot High School and the judges’ pick for best speech before the audience at the high school level. “Revolutions don’t start with bullets, but with words...and ignorance, indifference and silence are luxuries we can no longer afford.”

Manassas Park High School Drumline performs at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program and Youth Oratorical Contest on Jan. 15 at Cecil D. Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge. The best middle school and high school students from the Youth Oratorical Contest presented their speeches to the capacity audience.

Each one of the students spoke about the importance of fighting back against the racist rhetoric they believe is permeating vast swaths of America’s politics these days, but several also addressed the budding “#MeToo” movement of women pushing back against sexual harassment.

“I’ve been warned about staying out too late because, ‘You’re a woman; enough said,’” said Jennine Faruque, an eighth grader at Stonewall Middle School and her age group’s winner of best speech before the audience. “But all I can do is stand the tallest I can...and as Dr. King said, ‘a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.’”

Gladys Gonzalez, a student at Osbourn High School, urged the audience of hundreds to “rebel against what’s normal,” particularly taking aim at President Donald Trump and his recent derogatory comments about developing nations.

“People in poverty-stricken countries don’t need a man to insult their circumstances,” Gonzalez said.

Yet other speakers also charged listeners to look beyond Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and not lose sight of other, more pervasive injustices in American society.

“We must raise our hands up and march not because of our president and what he’s tweeting, but because black lives are being stolen every day,” said Zion Fozo, a student at Potomac High School.

Indeed, Angela Ngono Noumedem of Gainesville Middle School extolled the virtues of speaking clearly about such “uncomfortable” truths, commending the bravery of victims of sexual assault who have spoken about their experiences, as well as the courage of Colin Kaepernick, who gave up millions of dollars and his NFL career to protest police brutality.

“Where would we be now without their bravery?” Noumedem said.

Congressman Gerry Connolly, from Virginia's 11th congressional district, addresses the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program and Youth Oratorical Contest Januray 15 at Cecil D. Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge.

Syed Sarim, a seventh grader at Porter Traditional School, was similarly resolute that “we can’t fiddle while Rome burns,” suggesting that if King were alive now (roughly 50 years after his assassination) that he would “not sit idle” in the face of the injustice that still pervades American society.

Congressman Gerry Connolly, D-11th District, couldn’t help but agree with that sentiment. In a brief speech, he argued that King “wouldn’t be silent when he heard the dog whistles of racism or even the blaring sirens” evident in today’s political rhetoric.
“His cause is as necessary and relevant today as it was in the days of Bull Connor,” Connolly said. “In times of moral crisis, there should be no room for equivocation or rationalization.”

The event also included several performances by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir, a group comprised of students from throughout Prince William County. Each student in the contest received a $100 check from the sorority, while the two winners earned an additional prize of an Amazon gift card.
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