Marcus Irish, an eighth-grader at Rippon Middle School, said he had butterflies in his stomach Monday as he strode up to the Hylton Memorial Chapel stage to speak before 3,000 people.
His delivery didn't show it. Marcus, 13, brought the audience to cheers, as did all five other young speakers at the 10th Annual Martin Luther King Day oratorical contest, sponsored by the Prince William Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.
As the audience clapped and shouted in approval, Marcus explained the difference between sweat and tears--tears can earn you sympathy, but only sweat can get problems solved.
"If we want to get to that Promised Land, we better start working, and we better start sweating," said Marcus, who was named Monday's best middle school speaker.
"I've done a lot of speaking, but I was still nervous because this is such a big place," said Marcus, who, like the other finalists, memorized his speech.
The contest, which drew 1,000 people to Gar-Field Senior High School when it was first staged 10 years ago, has only grown since then, said organizer Lillie Jessie, principal of Vaughan Elementary School in Woodbridge.
"The response to the children was just overwhelmingly positive. It just pleasantly surprised all of us," Jessie said.
When the contest began, students could write their own speeches or present their renditions of one of King's speeches. This year, the recitation category was removed, and students were asked to write speeches based on a common theme: "Dr. King's Message for the Millennium."
More than 100 students from schools in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park participated in the contest. Six finalists--three each from middle school and high school--were selected to present their 10-minute speeches. In each age group, contestants competed for medals and a $100 savings bond.
The anniversary celebration also brought back previous winners, who introduced the speakers and presented awards.
Although the speeches grew out of King's messages of unity and nonviolence, the student speakers agreed on one thing: His goal of racial harmony has not been reached.
"We are hurting. Your children are going through issues and problems every day," Keia Johnson, 17, a senior at Gar-Field Senior High, said in her speech, adding that sticking to King's message would help solve those problems. "I believe that if Dr. King was alive today, he would say, 'Be encouraged. You will do it.' "
She was chosen as the best high school speaker.
In his speech, Ibram Rogers, 17, a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School, cast himself as King in the present day. Like the other speakers, he argued that there was still much work to be done.
"How can [the dream] be over when kids know more about Puff Daddy than they know about me?" he said, referring to the hip hop artist, to whoops of agreement.
Jessie said the oratorical contest acquires more meaning when one considers that King got his start as a young orator before church groups.
"These kids, they have such insight," she said. "I think Dr. King would be pleased."
CAPTION: At left, Ibram Rogers, a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School, gives the speech that took him to the finals of the 10th Annual Martin Luther King Day oratorical contest, at the Hylton Memorial Chapel. Above, 9-year-old Cedrick Washington looks through the event program with his grandmother, Rheda Gibson of Montclair.
CAPTION: "If we want to get to that Promised Land, we better start working, and we better start sweating," said eighth-grader Marcus Irish, named the best middle school speaker.