Students call for compassion and radical love at annual MLK oratorical contest

Compassion, love and courage are the things the nation needs most right now, according to Prince William students who participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Oratorical Contest last week.

The annual event was held at the Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge on Monday, the holiday honoring King. And this year, the students weren’t shy about expressing their concerns about — and aspirations for — life with a new occupant in the White House. The speeches were themed to address “What the World Needs Now.”

Abdullah Usufzai, a seventh-grader at Ronald Reagan Middle School, said that in the days leading up to inauguration, his younger brother fearfully asked him what President-elect Donald Trump would do when he took power.

Speaking before a crowd organizers estimated at 2,200, Abdullah also said racial prejudice can be seen in how violent acts are characterized: If a black person kills someone, it’s called gang-related, and if the perpetrator is Muslim, it’s terrorism; however, if the killer is white, the crime is chalked up to mental illness, he said.

“We must treat others with understanding, compassion and love,” said the 12-year-old, who was dressed in a dark three-piece suit.

Judges named him the top middle school speaker, over Chelsea Campbell of Porter Traditional School and Jennine Faruque of Stonewall Middle School. The three spoke at the Hylton event after having been named finalists following two previous rounds of competition.

The top high school speaker, Norman Jones III, said courage is necessary to protect the equality of religious, cultural and sexual minorities, referring specifically to Muslims, Native Americans, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“There is no wiggle room allowed when it comes to doing what’s right,” said Jones, a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School. A repeat oratorical contest winner, the 17-year-old bested finalists Gladys Gonzalez of Osbourn High School and Hamayel Safi of Woodbridge High School.

Lillie Jessie, vice chairman of the Prince William County School Board and a longtime organizer of the annual MLK event, said she thought the six student finalists eloquently outlined their concerns about social issues. She called the speeches “very moving.”

The Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., of which Jessie is a member, has put on the MLK celebration for three decades. Adult speakers were featured initially; the youth format was adopted in 1990.

The students who spoke last week received monetary prizes, and the winners also received gift cards.

At least one former MLK student speaker has gained acclaim far beyond the contest. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of African American history at the University of Florida, in November received the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. But in 2000, he was a 17-year-old senior at Stonewall Jackson, competing in the youth oratorical event at Hylton Memorial Chapel. He didn’t win the top award that year, but he did claim a finalist prize.

At the time, he was thinking about a career in sports writing. But he said in a telephone interview last week that delving into societal issues in the Prince William contest planted the idea that he might take a different path, one that led eventually to the award for his book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

Kendi said his student speech imagined King finding that, even by 2000, minorities hadn’t achieved the same freedoms as whites. Given the chance to speak now, though, he said he would talk about how progress on race issues relates to King’s “dream,” while the simultaneous “progression of racism” over the years symbolizes King’s “nightmare.”

Even with the continued presence of bigotry, Kendi said, he remains optimistic about the future of race relations.

Why? You can’t be a change agent if you don’t believe change is possible, he said.

“I think it makes sense to people,” Kendi said.

He said he’s talking to publishers about two other book projects: one on how to be an “anti-racist” and another on the history of racist policies.

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