"Come with me to the Washington Monument, to hear that great American, Martin Luther King . . . . The year is 1986," began Lisa Thomas, 11, a student at Bunker Hill Elementary School.
Thomas then named apartheid, nuclear arms, terrorism, the homeless and drug abuse as today's pressing issues. "I had a dream in 1963 for peace, love and brotherhood," Thomas concluded. "I still have that dream."
Thomas' speech won her a top prize in the first essay and oratorical contest sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. D.C. Support Group. The contest, held at the First Baptist Church in Northwest, was among a myriad of events taking place in the District as the city pauses to recall a man whose oratory challenged the nation.
The little voices of the 17 contestants carried big messages: that King had brought the United States a long way, but that the march was far from finished; that black youths must abandon drugs, avoid early pregnancy and cherish education; that South Africa's apartheid must be eradicated, and that, despite the lack of equality 18 years after King's death, his dream will be realized someday.
"We want to encourage the students to write and to speak, because we appreciate the talent that Dr. King had in these areas," said Helen Tate, president of the support group. "We also want the young people to understand Dr. King's beliefs of peace, justice and nonviolence."
Fatima Fuller, 10, who won fourth prize, told the audience of about 60 that King would think that his dream has both "failed and succeeded." He would be pleased that blacks and whites ride together on buses and eat together in restaurants, but he would be disheartened to see the drugs, killings and pregnancy that afflict youth. King would be very distraught, Fuller said, to see "black children who act like they don't want a good education."
After the contest Fuller, 10, a pupil at Nevil Thomas Elementary, said, "I just wrote down my ideas" about King. "She has four other brothers and sisters, so we were her audience," said her mother, Marilyn Fuller. "We're all very proud."
Thomas Lawrence, 11, also of Nevil Thomas, won second place. Thomas said that he had worked with a teacher who encouraged him to practice at home in front of a mirror, but that did not tame his nervousness.
"I saw the audience and I felt like I was going to faint," he said later. During his speech, Lawrence drew a soft laugh from the audience when he said, "Toy factories should make Dr. King dolls, rather than Michael Jackson dolls. I would buy one."
Rramono Christian, a fifth grader at Shaed Elementary School who said, "Dr. King would be totally distressed at the violence in our world today," said he hoped to "buy clothes" with his third-place prize money. That brought a laugh from his mother, who stood nearby.
Other winners included Yoamadil Caban-Gonzalez, 11, and Rhonda Gladden and Tamara Vines, both of whom are 12. Prizes ranged from $50 to $100.
Jacqueline Nedab Olds, contest coordinator, told the audience near the end of the evening that "as they were speaking, tears began to come from my eyes."
Thomas Lawrence, rekindling the dream for his generation, said, "There are still some people who judge others by their color. I know I will never judge another person by the color of his skin."