Stu­dents chan­nel King, Ali in or­a­tory con­test

An­nual event teaches lessons in civil rights

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Shelby Webb

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.”

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.

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