Inside NoVa: Honoring King’s Legacy: Students, elected leaders celebrate civil rights leader with annual MLK Oratorical Competition

INSIDE NOVA, EMILY SEYMOUR

A middle school student and a local high schooler took best speaker awards in the 39th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Oratorical Competition Monday, honoring King on what would have been his 95th birthday.

The event, hosted by the Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. at Charles J. Colgan Sr. High School in Manassas, featured six students – three middle schoolers and three high schoolers – chosen as finalists from a pool of around 50 students.

Each student prepared a speech in response to the following prompt: “If America is to remain a great nation, we must … ”

The prompt honors the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington and his famous “I have a Dream” speech given at the march on Aug. 28, 1963.

“It’s so extraordinary to know that this community is not only nurturing the next generation of leadership but ensuring that students know that your voices matter, that the beauty of the words that you speak to us, that you put out into the world can have an impact,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

The two winners – eighth-grader Rabab Raza and senior Myles Lanier – received rousing applause after their speeches.

Raza, a student at Rippon Middle School, began her speech with a poem about the plight of the Palestinian people, likening it to that of Black Americans. 

She echoed King’s language, laying out what her dreams are as a young, Hijab-wearing woman.

“I have a dream that one day people no longer go out and bomb mosques for their own harmful agenda. I have a dream that one day people no longer feel threatened by a 13-year-old girl walking peacefully and proudly down the street in her hijab. This is not what I believe Dr. King meant by a great nation. A great nation would be where everyone would be and feel free no matter the color of their skin, religion or ethnicity,” Raza said.

Raza went on to say people must demonstrate their love through service and commitment to others in order to keep this dream alive and to keep America a great nation.

“I believe that my generation and the future generations will be the light to the darkness and can keep America’s true greatness intact. The hope continues with us,” she said.

Raza said she entered the competition, in part, to help overcome her fear of public speaking.

Lanier, a senior at Manassas Park High School, won the best speaker award for the high school cohort.

Lanier offered a call to action in his speech, answering the question, “What must we do to ensure that everyone in this great nation is able to thrive?”

“In order for this nation to become a greater nation, a stronger nation, we must answer the call. We must fight like Malcolm and Harriet. We must write like Maya and Langston, we must challenge like Rosa and Fannie Lou, we must educate like Booker and W.E.B., we must lead like Kamala and Barack, we must bleed like Martin. We must carry our hope from our past and our hope for the future,” Lanier said.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia attended Monday’s event and delivered remarks.

Kaine told the story of what’s known as the Children’s Crusade of 1963, when King empowered young people and brought them into the fold of the Civil Rights Movement.

More than 1,000 students skipped school and marched in Birmingham, Alabama, and were met with excessive police force. The images of school children being beaten by police were so powerful that it ultimately led to local Birmingham officials sitting down with King and negotiating the opening of public facilities.

The message, Kaine said, was the power of young people.

“You might not be old enough to vote, never think you’re not old enough to make an impact,” Kaine said. “You are.”

Warner answered the prompt each student was tasked with answering in the competition.

“If America is to remain a great nation, it must finally end the scourge of racism. If America is to remain a great nation, especially now in a world that is so dangerous, America must keep its word … If America is to remain a great nation, it must invest in its young people and be a nation that’s forward-looking … and recognize that there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish if we do it together,” Warner said.

Also in attendance were several Prince William County School Board members, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Deshundra Jefferson, Prince William Superintendent of School LaTanya McDade and several other local officials.

Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood helped host the event, serving as emcee.

The event was hosted at Charles Colgan High School in Manassas, the first one in-person since January 2020.

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