Students channel King, Ali in oratory contest
Annual event teaches lessons in civil rights
It was almost surprising that such a booming voice could come from 9-yearold Nhedrick Jabier.
As the Crespo Elementary School fourth grader performed an imagined conversation between civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and boxing icon Muhammad Ali, he jabbed the air with fists and made sweeping gestures with his arms. He yelled with a powerful swagger when portraying Ali but became more subdued when he characterized King.
“The word great is mentioned way too far often. We call mediocre people great, even when they’re dead in their coffin,” Nhedrick said in King’s voice. “I was called great for being a catalyst, a spark of civil change, you know the gist. But that word is too humbling for me to accept. Ali sacrificed his name and lost some people’s respect, but I call it great, courageous and unique.”
Nhedrick’s dialogue earned him first place and a $1,000 prize Friday in the 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition at the historic Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in downtown. He was one of 12 Houston ISD elementary students who delivered impassioned messages to a crowd of more than 300.
The finalists were selected from more than 200 students at 24 Houston ISD elementary schools. This year, students were asked to write and recite a speech of what King would say about Ali, who died in June at 74 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Claude Treece, CEO and partner of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP and longtime event chair, said this year’s
competition was among the most difficult to judge. The students are that good, he said.
“The kids love it, showing that talent and getting recognition at that age is such a big thing,” Treece said. “You have to see some of these kids. Their speeches make them seem beyond their years.”
Students’ voices reverberated through the historic church, echoing with righteous conviction. Several spoke as if they were the deceased civil rights leaders, while others used their own words to paint pictures of Ali and King.
Although the 9- and 10-year-olds spoke about Ali as if he were a mentor and confidant, many of the contestants knew little about the icon before the competition.
Nine-year-old Jernee Craig, a fourth grader at Whidby Elementary, said after months of watching YouTube clips of the athlete and activist, she learned he was a fighter in multiple respects. “I thought it was interesting that he spoke for civil rights,” Jernee said.
Though her nerves were palpable before the competition, she transformed on stage, commanding the church with her impassioned words and powerful presence. She drew parallels between Ali’s then-controversial actions with the current struggle for racial justice.
“Much like Ali, (Colin) Kaepernick continued to stand against oppression without fear of losing football, his fans or his endorsements,” Jernee said, alluding to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has made a political statement by refusing to stand for the national anthem. “And what greater accomplishment is there than to serve as an inspiration to others?”
Jernee’s mother, Jessica, wiped away tears as she watched her daughter.
“For her to be publicly speaking like this is amazing,” Jessica said. “I’m an adult, and I’m scared to speak in front of people. But the fact that she took the initiative and did this — it’s overwhelming.”
Though Jernee did not place in the competition, she carried a large bouquet of pink roses and will take home $100 and a backpack full of supplies, as will all the other finalists.
Zyahra Barnes, a Windsor Village fourth grader, took home $500 for earning second place. The third place winner, Kamarah Pennamon from Blackshear Elementary, was awarded $250.
After Nhedrick won, the 9-year-old said he was ecstatic he could take the award back to Crespo, which he said has not won the competition in years. Both his parents teach at the school.
“I’ve learned that great people are always standing up for what’s right,” Nhedrick said. “With how the world is now, especially with the election, we have to work together. I hope with this speech I was able to inspire others to do that.”
Crespo Elementary School fourth-grader Nhedrick Jabier is thrilled to learn he won first place and a $1,000 prize in the 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition on Friday at the historic Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.