Laila Ward, an eighth grader at Mona Jain Middle School, imagined Martin Luther King Jr. was standing beside her while she was in school.
She looked at her friends and classmates at Mona Jain and thought about how everyone treated one another, which inspired her response to the essay question, “If Dr. King were alive, what do you think he would say to the youth of today?”
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality, not just for Birmingham, Alabama, but the whole world,” Ward said in her speech. “All the pain, suffering and most sleepless nights, for what? Nothing, based on today’s youth. Physically, we may not be segregated anymore, but mentally we are. How is it the youth of today are privileged to live together in harmony yet we choose to live in division and with antagonism toward one another?”
Ward’s impassioned speech on the need for equality today just as much as when King fought for it during the civil rights movement earned her first place in the middle school level of the Palmetto Youth Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Essay and Speech Contest.
Ward and Nick Stanley, a senior at Lakewood Ranch High School who won the high school level of the contest, shared their speeches with the School Board of Manatee County Feb. 11.
After presenting their speeches to the School Board of Manatee County, Ward and Stanley received standing ovations from the board members and the audience that attended the meeting.
Stanley was surprised to learn he had won the contest for his essay on what King’s quote “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way,” means to him.
“When I read that quote, what really stuck out to me was if you cannot do the small things correctly, you’ll never be able to do the big things correctly,” Stanley said.
He used personal experiences of being a member of the Lakewood Ranch JROTC Raiders to make the speech relatable to anyone who was listening.
Maintaining a positive mindset and setting goals are all “small things” Stanley believes every person can do to achieve their goals just as King did.
For Ward’s speech, she remembered how she’s “singled out emotionally by those of the same race” as her, an African American girl, as well as other students who are bullied at school.
“I just looked around at my friends and society and just seeing how much we have changed and what would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say,” Ward said. “Then I compared it to what he was saying when he was still alive just as if he was standing right next to me. What would his words be to me and my friends?”
Both Stanley and Ward hope their speeches remind people of King’s messages of peace, justice and equality.
“I definitely want our future to be on the track of equal rights and equality, especially during a time when new challenges are occurring,” Stanley said. “We still want to make sure we’re fighting for equality for everybody.”