ST. PETERSBURG — The excitement builds as the parents, grandparents, guardians and supporters of this year’s finalists file in for the 35th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. High School Essay Contest Finals held at the Enoch Davis Community Center Thurs., Jan 14.
The excitement is amplified by the rhythmic beats overhead from African Tribal Orchestra’s album Sounds Like Africa. The stage looks forlorn, as an oversized portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. awaits the start of the contest with an inquisitive yet solemn gaze.
As the contest commences the support can be felt through the words and emotions displayed on stage during opening remarks by Virginia Scott and Jarish Jones, Master of Ceremonies.
For the first time since the contest’s inauguration, all six contestants were African American females; a proud accomplishment acknowledged by Virginia Scott, EDC Senior Advisory Council and Leontyne Middleton, both members of the SPC of MLK, Jr. CO, Inc.
Diversity among the contestants is always welcomed and has been the norm throughout the existence of the contest, but with this year’s finalists being all female it has shown the community that women are no longer supporters in the background but front running leaders.
The prompt for this year’s contest was to identify a ‘Champion of Peace’ and why? After experiencing an increase in violent protests, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks around the world over the last few years, the words of these future leaders lingered heavily amongst the more than 45 attendees.
As stated by Leontyne Middleton in her closing remarks these powerful, young women “spoke about our world today – multinational.” The champions mentioned in the student’s essays spanned the globe from Pakistan, Kenya, Liberia, and the United States.
Contest winner and Lakewood High School Senior Tasina Taylor’s tenacious presentation defined a champion as “a person or figure that fights, argues, and defends greatly for a cause on the behalf of something or someone.” Her champion of peace is President Barack Obama.
With over 50 top accomplishments Tasina believes the defining act that made President Obama the ultimate champion of peace was when he “ordered Special Forces to raid a secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan to assassinate the calamitous leader Osama Bin Laden” bringing America great peace, a justice former president George W. Bush could not serve.
Tasina won a $200 cash prize and a seat at the VIP table for her and an accompanying adult at the 30th Annual MLK Leadership Award breakfast being held at the Coliseum Mon., Jan 18. Tasina and her guest will enjoy breakfast with members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family.
First runner up Alexandra Givins, a junior at Gibbs High School gave an impactful and emotional speech on Malala Yousafzaoi, a young woman in Pakistan who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for bringing education to young females in a country where women are forbidden to learn. Malala won Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize for her efforts. Alexandra won a $100 cash prize.
Leymah Gbowee was third place winner Amber Seay’s champion. Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist known for stepping up to protect the lives of women and children in a civil war ridden country. Amber attends Lakewood High School and won a $75 cash prize.
Fourth place winner Tatjana Simmons from Lakewood High School chose Tegla Loroupe, a Kenyan long distance and roadrunner who was the first African American female to win the New York City Marathon. Tegla is a spokeswoman for a peaceful coexistence across the globe.
Fifth place winner Brittany Matthews spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his accomplishments that advanced the civil rights movement in the United States.
Finalist Deonnie J. Brown was unable to attend.
Carlos Walker, Jr. an 8th Grader at John Hopkins Middle played Lift Every Voice on the violin. GLP Inspirational Dance Team provided the entertainment while the judges discretely tallied their scores.
Jacquilin Wallace, Shelia Lamb, and Arcilous Mincey, all educators, took on the challenging role as judges. Jarrish Jones, from St. Petersburg Youth Build, maintained his role as Master of Ceremonies for the 7th year. Charlie Williams, of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and Virginia Scott of SPC of MLK, Jr. CO, Inc. presented the awards to the finalists.
This event was sponsored by the St. Petersburg Chapter of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Organization, Inc. Committee (SPC of MLK, Jr. CO, Inc), in cooperation with the Theta Eta Lambda Education Foundation of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.,
Laura Mulrooney is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.