Tristan Whitfield, fifth-grade student at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center who won the Foley’s Annual MLK Jr. Oratory Competition in Dallas, performs during the 30th annual oratory competition, Jan. 14. – Photo by Jeffrey Dietz



Special to The Dallas Examiner


DALLAS and HOUSTON – Elementary school students celebrated their diverse communities and honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the final rounds of Foley & Lardner LLP’s Annual MLK Jr. Oratory Competitions in Dallas and Houston Jan. 14. The fourth- and fifth-grader students, who advanced from preliminary and semifinal rounds, delivered original speeches addressing the topic: “How would Dr. King assess our progress in achieving his vision for America?”

Presented by Foley, the competitions were held in person, in accordance with local current health and safety guidelines, ensuring past event continuity and safety for everyone involved.

Each competition began with either virtual or in-school qualifying rounds, followed by semifinals. At every level of the competition, students were evaluated on delivery, stage presence and decorum, content interpretation and memorization. Panels of prominent community and local business leaders judged the final rounds.

Tristan Whitfield, a fifth-grade student at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center, was the first-place winner in the Dallas competition. Ronnie Williams, a fourth-grade student from James H. Law Elementary, was named the first-place winner in Houston.


Dallas student envisions a world of love, not hate

Tristan cited the end of segregation and the availability of jobs, property and education for all as progress that would make King proud, while the election of our first Black president would have exceeded his expectations. He noted that Dr. King believed that people should want to see the betterment of mankind and that he would be looking for continued progress.

“Dr. King envisioned a world of love, not hate,” he said. “We must continue to search our own hearts, drive out hate and remember why his dream was even necessary. We must live by Dr. King’s quote, ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”

Jaliaha Rodgers, a fifth-grade student at JP Starks Math, Science, and Technology Vanguard, placed second. Arianna Garcia, a fifth-grade student at L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary School, took home third place.

“This year’s MLK Jr. Oratory Competition marks the 30th anniversary of the event in Dallas – a truly momentous occasion for our law firm,” said Michael Newman, Managing Partner of Foley’s Dallas office. “We host this competition to encourage our community to commemorate Dr. King’s remarkable life and to pay tribute to his enduring legacy. I am astonished by the grace and poise of our student orators and always leave the competition inspired by their messages of hope and calls to action. We appreciate the commitment of the teams at the Dallas Independent School District and my colleagues at Foley, who have made this event a reality for the past three decades.”


Houston student believes Dr. King would look for progress, not perfection

Ronnie said he imagined that King would use a tool akin to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness – known as the STAAR – to rate whether America has approached, met or mastered his goals. He applied this rubric to King’s vision for voting, injustice and hate.

Ronnie expressed a belief that, despite advances since 1965, recent voter restriction laws are a step backward and don’t even merit an “approach.” Citing King’s quote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said he thought the country was approaching King’s goal of fighting racial injustice. He said the greatest progress score to fighting hate, seeing it “exposed and expelled live on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and thankfully at my school.”

On that subject, he concluded, “We are not where we ought to be, but thank God we are not where we used to be.”

Xedrick Jabier, a fourth grader at Crespo Elementary, placed second in the Houston competition, while Marquise Ambers, a fourth grader from Cornelius Elementary, took home third place.

“In its 26 years in Houston, the competition has drawn hundreds of talented students, who have composed meaningful, inspiring speeches beyond their years. This year was no exception,” said Claude Treece, Foley’s chief administrative partner and longtime event chair of the Houston competition. “It was a joy listening to these students as they eloquently embodied Dr. King’s vision and delivered powerful speeches on our aspiration of achieving that vision.”


The annual competition

The oratory competition has been held each year in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day to encourage people to remember and pay tribute to the late civil rights leader’s legacy. Foley established the event to encourage students to learn more about Dr. King and to help cultivate the writing and speaking skills of elementary school students.

The competition was created in Dallas in 1993. The event’s success led to the establishment of the Houston competition in 1997 and the Chicago competition in 2020. Both the preliminary and final rounds of the Chicago competition will take place virtually later this year, in February.

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