Elementary School Students Praise Human Rights Leaders, Remembering Their Impact on This MLK Holiday

13 January 2017 News

Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions allow kids to channel Dr. King, while honoring Muhammad Ali

Today, 20 elementary school students from Texas inspired audiences with their wisdom, compassion and pageantry as they spoke of the bond between two human rights leaders, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, during the Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions held in Dallas and Houston. Winners included Sierra Jones, a fifth-grade student from Charles Rice Learning Center in Dallas, and Nhedrick Jabier, a fourth-grader from Crespo Elementary in Houston.

Presented, sponsored and hosted by Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP, the competition, now celebrating its monumental 25th year in Dallas and 21st anniversary in Houston, highlights the cultural diversity of each community, while recognizing and encouraging the writing and presentation skills of elementary school students. Each year, participants present original three-to-five minute speeches addressing a particular topic that helps each student better understand the legacy the great civil rights leader left for future generations. This year’s question – “If Dr. King were alive today, what would he say about Muhammad Ali’s contribution to society?” – not only celebrates Dr. King, but also Ali. Jan. 17 marks the late Ali’s birthday. He would have turned 75.

The finalists were selected from nearly 400 fourth- and fifth-grade students, representing an unprecedented 49 schools from the Dallas and Houston Independent School Districts. For the first year, the Dallas competition expanded from 15 schools to 25 to commemorate the event’s 25th anniversary.

Participants first competed at in-school and semifinal rounds to earn a spot in the finals. At all three levels of the competition, students were evaluated on delivery, stage presence and decorum, content interpretation, and memorization. At the finals, students were judged by locally renowned community and business leaders.

“The students never cease to amaze us each and every year with not only their oratory skills but also with their perspectives and life lessons far beyond their young ages,” says Gardere Chair Holland N. O’Neil. “Gardere is proud to partner with the Dallas and Houston ISDs to provide these students with the platform to showcase their exceptional talents.”

Sierra Jones, a fifth-grade student from Charles Rice Learning Center, earned first place in Dallas with her inspiring interpretation of what she believes Dr. King would say about his friend, Muhammad Ali. While portraying Dr. King, she says “He [Ali] was a man who stood up for his rights – the same cause I’ve been fighting for many years.” Sierra’s speech highlighted Ali’s refusal to join the Vietnam War, as well as his boxing triumphs, tying together Ali’s fights in and out of the ring. “So I would say fight when you are tired, fight for what you believe, fight like my friend Muhammad Ali fought when you cannot fight anymore.” No stranger to the competition, 11-year-old Sierra competed last year but didn’t make it past the first round of the competition.

Jace Roberson, a fifth-grader at J.P. Starks Math, Science and Technology Vanguard, earned second place, and Asad King, a fourth-grader at William Brown Miller Elementary, was awarded third place.

Fourth-grade student Nhedrick Jabier took the No. 1 spot in the Houston competition. Nhedrick titled his speech “Greatest” and shared what he believed Dr. King would have said to Muhammad Ali about the great legacy he left. The nine-year-old spoke about common themes that could be applicable today, noting that Dr. King and Ali had opposing views, yet “it takes a great man to modify his views.” Nhedrick, who moved from Puerto Rico three years ago, used rhythm and rhyme to share his perspective, telling the audience that “Ali sacrificed his name and lost some respect. But I call it great, courageous and unique; to choose not to fight is never considered weak.”

Zyahra Barnes, a fourth-grade student from Windsor Village Elementary, placed second, while fifth-grader Kamarah Pennamon of Blackshear Elementary took home third place.

“The talent and energy we witnessed today are remarkable, and it’s encouraging to see kids at this age understand the impact these great human rights leaders had on our country,” says Gardere CEO Claude Treece. “The Firm is honored to host this inspiring event each year, and we are privileged to get a first look at some of our future community leaders.”

The events were held in historic venues in both cities – the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas and the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Christ in Houston.

The Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition was established in Dallas in 1993 by Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP. The event is hosted annually in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day to encourage the community to remember and pay tribute to the late civil rights leader’s legacy. Gardere introduced the event to not only encourage students to learn more about Dr. King but to also help cultivate the writing and speaking skills of elementary school students. The event's success in Dallas led to the establishment of the competition in Houston in 1997. 

To watch the winning speeches and to learn more about the Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions, click here.