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Talented Students Deliver Modern Interpretations of Dr. King's Lasting Messages at Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions

Speeches honor legacy of civil rights leader
01.17.14

Twenty elementary-school aged students from Dallas and Houston ISD schools shared their present-day perceptions of the late Dr. Martin Luther King's teachings during the Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions held today in Dallas and Houston. Winners included Kayla O'Neal of Dallas, a fourth-grade student at J.P Starks Math, Science and Technology Vanguard, and Amari Venzor of Houston, a fifth-grade student from Cornelius Elementary.

Finalists were selected from more than 380 fourth- and fifth-grade students, representing 43 schools from Dallas and Houston ISD. Participants first competed for the opportunity to represent their school in school-wide rounds in October and November. At the next level of the competition, the semi-finals, eight students were selected in Dallas and 12 in Houston to advance to the final competitions in each city. Both communities gathered at historic venues – the Majestic Theatre in Downtown Dallas and the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston – to pay tribute to the iconic civil rights leader and watch students vie for the top spot. The competition, now celebrating its 22nd year in Dallas and 18th year in Houston, is presented, hosted and sponsored by Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP.

Participants present original three-five minute speeches addressing a particular question that helps them learn and understand the impact of the great civil rights leader. This year's question: "If Dr. King were speaking at a March on Washington today, what would he say?" was met with hope and determination by each participating student and also paid tribute to the recent 50th anniversary of Dr. King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. At all three levels of the competition, students are judged on delivery, stage presence and decorum, content interpretation, and memorization. At the final competition, students were evaluated by panels of local well-known community and business leaders.

"The legacy of Dr. King is such an important one to our nation," said Gardere Chair Holland N. O'Neil. "We sometimes forget that his teachings speak to children as well and that change can start with them. Seeing that Dr. King's message of equality is alive in the hearts of fourth- and fifth- grade students gives Dr. King's iconic words new relevancy and offers us all a sense of hope for the future. Our Firm is honored to be a part of something that brings such an important message of positivity to the community."

Fourth-grade student Kayla O'Neal captured the top spot in Dallas with her engaging and powerful speech, taking the audience through her perspective on some of society's biggest challenges young people face today. "Drugs are nothing but another form of slavery," she said, when expressing the No. 1 problem in communities. She also rejoiced in the progress the country has made, noting that "[Dr. King's] heart would swell with pride" knowing we elected our first African American president in her lifetime. She offered a captivated audience and her peers with a solution to combat many of the hardships her generation deals with: "Equip your mind and [you'll] equip your future," the ten-year-old stressed.

Etana King, a fourth-grader at John Neely Bryan Elementary, earned second place in Dallas, and Jamiya McNeil, a fifth-grade student at Charles Rice Learning Center took home the third-place title.

"These children have demonstrated an incredibly mature understanding of some of today's most poignant issues," said Claude R. Treece, Gardere operating partner and longtime event chair. "It's always enlightening to hear and see how these issues are viewed through the eyes of society's most impressionable. Their refreshing interpretations and perspectives inspire the audience members and challenge us to develop new solutions to reoccurring issues."

The Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition was established in Dallas in 1993 by Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP and 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. Presented in the spirit of learning and celebration, the competition is designed to highlight the cultural diversity of the community, while recognizing and encouraging the writing and presentation skills of elementary school students. The event's success led to the establishment in 1997 of the competition in Houston.

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