PRINCE WILLIAM TIMES, JILL PALERMO
Myles Lanier, a 17-year-old senior at Manassas Park High School, took home the top awards in the event, winning both the “best before the judges” and the “best before the audience” prizes at the high school level. The awards came with about $400 in prize money.
At the middle school level, Raba Raza, an eighth-grader at Rippon Middle School in Woodbridge, won the “best before the audience” award, while Ebenezer Samuel, an eighth-grader at Ronald Reagan Middle School in Gainesville, won the “best before the judges” award.
In prior years, the contest asked students to reflect on phrases from King’s best-known speeches. This year, it asked students to come up with their own ideas for making the country stronger.
Lanier, who has competed in the annual contest for the last five years, said he initially struggled to put his ideas into words.
“I honestly was really pondering how I could make this resonate, and it was very difficult,” Lanier said in an interview after the program. “I knew I wanted to talk about how we as a nation could be so much better than what we are now. Even though we talk about being such a great nation—about being the land of liberty and freedom, the land of democracy—there’s so many things that we haven’t done yet, from the education system to elections to everything else.”
Lanier began his speech quoting the biblical prophet Isaiah, saying, “Here am I. Send me,” signaling his own willingness to serve. He went on to ask the same of others, challenging them to confront the nation’s shortcomings and demand better. He also acknowledged Black leaders of the distant and recent past and implored others to find inspiration in their accomplishments.
“In order for this nation to become a greater nation, a stronger nation, we must answer the call,” he said. “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.”
Raza began her speech talking about the oppression of the Palestinian people and compared their struggle with that of African Americans. After quoting part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Raza said that, as member of a minority group, she also dreams of a better country.
“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,” Raza said. “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, their religion or their ethnicity.”
Both Raza and Lanier received standing ovations for their speeches. Lanier said he first entered the oratorical contest in middle school and was inspired to do so by his older sister, now in college, who won her school-level competition.
For the last four years, Lanier has won his school-level competitions and qualified as a finalist. He said the experience of writing and delivering the speeches has taught him that he can do things he “never thought I could do.”
“If I told my eighth-grade self or my seventh-grade self that I would be sitting here speaking in front of this many people, I would have told myself I was crazy,” he said. “So this is just a testament of what God could do in such a short amount of time, and I’m really, really grateful for these opportunities.”
Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood served as emcee for the competition and praised all of the students for their confident and thoughtful speeches.
The event was also attended by both Virginia U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) as well as U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
Kaine shared a story about King’s “Children’s Crusade,” a group of young people who wanted to join sit-ins and other protests despite King’s initial reluctance. Kaine said King worried about their safety but eventually allowed them to join the civil rights demonstrations. Kaine noted that some members of the Children’s Crusade were met with fire hoses in Alabama in scenes that shocked the nation and embarrassed state officials, advancing the cause.
“You might not be old enough to vote, but never think you’re not old enough to make an impact,” Kaine said. “You are.”