Students take on tough topics for Martin Luther King, Jr. oratory competition

Local HISD students didn't shy away from tough topics during a speech competition in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday morning.

Fourth and fifth graders at Pleasantville Elementary competed for a spot in the 24th Annual Foley Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition.

“I have a dream that police officers will stop shooting people with problems and get them the help they need,” says 4th grader Vernard Jenkins during his speech.

Another student tells the audience that the number of mass shootings in America outnumbers calendar days, and another speaks about uninsured cancer patients who die sooner due to late diagnoses.

The students are kicking off two weeks of qualifying rounds at local HISD schools.

“Affordable healthcare, education and violence are consistent reminders of how far we still must go,” says another speaker.

At Pleasantville where contestants often make it to the finals round, social issues are worked into this year’s theme, “What would Dr. King’s vision be for America in 2020?”

Instead of talks of different races walking hand-in-hand, teachers say recent headlines are forcing tougher conversations on a range of topics, from gun violence to criminal justice.

“They addressed police officers losing their lives, children losing their lives,” says speech coach and fifth-grade teacher Deshunda Loft.

“[They] ask questions- why does it look different when two people are convicted of a similar crime, and the sentencing looks different?” she adds.

The students' speeches show how dreams have changed since Dr. King's assassination more than 50 years ago and the work that still needs to be done.

“I would hope that people stop shooting and let people live in peace,” says fifth-grader Hanah Hamilton.

She was selected to move on to semi-finals to compete against 23 other HISD students.  

The final competition will be held Jan. 17, 2020 at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.