The 12 third-grade students sitting on stage at Corr Elementary School Jan. 22 had hair and skin of many different colors.
The large room was filled with other third-grade students, their parents and younger children, as well as the teachers, school administrators and counselors who had taught them the reason for the event.
It was the culmination of the “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 3rd Grade Essay Contest,” when the 12, whose essays had been selected as the best — from 120 entrants — awaited their time to read.
Each student who read an essay was required to give a “one word” description of Dr. King as well. The words used most often were fair, brave, determined, loyal and loving — in that order.
Too young to remember the March on Washington Aug. 28, 1963, where more than 250,000 civil rights supporters listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, their teachers had taught them its meaning.
Of the 12 students, who each were given two minutes to present their essay, three top winners were chosen. Each child, however, received a monetary award, with First Place getting $100.
“But they told me they weren’t after the money,” said Audra Pennant, the guidance counselor who worked with them that day and prior to the event. “They said they were more interested in people hearing Dr. King’s message.”
King’s original speech was delivered exactly 100 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves.
“But we are still not free to pursue the dream,” King said in his famous speech that preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I have a dream that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
It wasn’t Alabama, but that didn’t matter. Moms and dads listened proudly as the multicolored line of children talked about the qualities and mission of Dr. King.
“Fifty percent is graded on composition,” said Pennant. “And 50 percent on presentation.”
Principal Terri Faerber took a back seat and watched — much like the proud parents — as each student stood, walked to the podium, presented his or her speech and then gave the word that best described King.
First place went to Nicholas Wilson; second to Zhanye Brown, and third to Demaris Calderon.
“They’re all winners,” said Kathy McGartland, the volunteer who wrote the grant that brought in the money from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation. “This was a wonderful chance to show they understood the meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”
Three hundred dollars from a grant from the Foundation was set aside for prize money for the event at Corr, McGartland added.
Judges Bernice Stapleton, Tracy Evans, Angela Seiford and Crystal Thorne Sanders listened intently to each essay and then scored them using a predetermined point system.
Dr. Samuel Wright, representing the Foundation, spoke, commending the content of the essays.
“Dr. King would have been proud of every one of these students,” he said after the last essay was read. He also commended the school and its staff for living out the meaning behind Dr. King’s famous speech.