Elementary school students celebrated their diverse communities and honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the final rounds of Foley & Lardner LLP’s Annual MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions in Dallas, Houston, and Chicago on January 13. The fourth- and fifth-graders, who advanced from preliminary and semifinal rounds, delivered original speeches addressing the topic: “What would Dr. King say to us today about hope for tomorrow?”
Presented, hosted, and sponsored by Foley, the annual oratory competition is held in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day to encourage people to remember and pay tribute to the late civil rights leader’s legacy and to help cultivate the writing and speaking skills of elementary school students.
Winners of each of the competitions are Zihair Douglas, a fifth-grader at Thomas L. Marsalis Elementary STEAM Academy in Dallas, Kadence Smith, a fifth-grader at James H. Law Elementary in Houston, and Harper Williams, a fifth-grader at Robert A. Black Elementary in Chicago.
Zihair Douglas, the first-place winner in Dallas, thinks Dr. King would be disappointed at the reversals of laws and policies protecting individual rights, but that he would be proud of the educational, political, and entrepreneurial leaders stepping up and advocating for social justice.
Douglas said, “I believe in order for us to improve our nation, we need to make intelligent decisions that will positively improve the lives of people from all cultures and backgrounds … I charge each of you and myself to fulfill Dr. King’s legacy and create a better world for ourselves and our future generations.”
“Every year, our student participants are tasked with writing a speech in response to a thought-provoking prompt. This year has been no different, and I’m extraordinarily proud of our eight finalists for their hard work and enthusiasm. I’m simply awestruck by their poise, talent, and passion for sharing what Dr. King’s legacy means to them,” said Michael Newman, managing partner of Foley’s Dallas office. “These children are our future leaders, and I’m confident they will make a profound impact on our community. Our firm is honored to play a role in providing a platform for them to express their dreams and aspirations for building a brighter tomorrow.”
Mohamad Mohamad, a fifth-grader at Elisha M. Pease Elementary, placed second in the Dallas competition, and Bria Hider, a fifth-grader at J.P. Starks Math, Science and Technology Vanguard, placed third.
Houston’s first-place winner, Kadence Smith, discussed the importance of communicating and modeling expectations daily, as Dr. King did with his desire for harmony, opportunity, peace, and equality.
“Dr. King would say the lines that divide us are not nearly as strong as the ties that bind us,” Smith said. “His hope for tomorrow is for the world to lift every voice and sing in the key of unity, and live out the spirit of the Pledge, ‘one nation under God, indivisible.’” He would say, “America, you have studied me for over 50 years. We know better; now let’s do better!”
“In partnership with the Houston Independent School District, we have been able to foster the writing and public speaking skills of young Houstonians for nearly three decades through this competition,” said Claude Treece, Foley’s chief administrative partner and longtime event chair of the Houston competition. “Each of our twelve finalists gave a compelling speech that inspired hope for tomorrow while honoring Dr. King’s legacy. We are proud to continue to be part of this incredible experience for all involved and grateful to those who help us make it happen every year.”
Journey Sensley, a fifth-grader at Young Elementary, placed second in the Houston competition, and Xavier Holmes, Jr., a fifth-grader at Windsor Village Elementary, placed third.
The first-place winner in Chicago, Harper Williams, adopted the persona of Dr. King himself to address divisions in the African American community, saying, “While I am proud to see that certain advancements have been made, we still have a lot of work to do. This is why we can’t sit around and allow hope to die. We have to come together, and we must rise.”
Williams called for a renewed focus on the Black community’s “culture of excellence” and concluded by saying, “Let [hope] serve as the energy necessary to move us into a stronger, more positive direction of unity and respect for one another, regardless of our skin tone. Let’s allow hope to spark action and change mindsets.”
“We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to host the Chicago competition in person this year after two years of being held virtually,” said Frank Pasquesi, managing partner of Foley’s Chicago office. “The ten Chicago Public School finalists took the stage with poise, courage, and compassion, speaking to a vision that proudly reflects Dr. King’s messages. We are honored to celebrate both Dr. King and the students he continues to inspire, with each year proving an important reminder to live out their words of empathy and equality for a better tomorrow.”
Issa Soumare, a fourth-grader from Arthur L. Dixon Elementary, placed second in the Chicago competition, while Kylelle Campbell, a fifth-grade student from Warren Elementary, placed third.
Each local competition began with either virtual or in-school qualifying rounds, followed by semifinals. At every level of the competition, students were evaluated on delivery, stage presence and decorum, content interpretation, and memorization. The final rounds were judged by panels of prominent community and local business leaders.
The competition was created in Dallas in 1993. The event’s success led to the establishment of the Houston competition in 1997 and the Chicago competition in 2020. To learn more about Foley’s MLK Jr. Oratory Competition, click here.
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