If 9-year-old Wesley Trent Stoker was nervous when he took the stage Friday at the 26th annual Gardere Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition in Dallas, he didn’t show it.
Dressed in a dark suit and a rose-colored tie, Wesley stood at the microphone and spoke fervently for five minutes around the contest’s theme honoring the late civil rights leader: “What is your dream for today’s world?”
Quoting King’s speeches, Wesley implored the audience to stand for what was right and to love one another.
More than once, he also seemed to acknowledge that he was the only white student among the competition’s finalists.
“I may not look like Dr. King,” Wesley said early in his speech, pointing both fingers in the air, then moving his right hand over his heart. “But I believe like Dr. King.”
It was a phrase he would refer back to several other times in his speech. And what he believed in — even as a fourth-grade student at Harry C. Withers Elementary School in Dallas — was a peaceful world.
“I wish that all of our differences would be celebrated, and that everyone felt included,” Wesley said. “I would like to see all people treated equally, feeling important and admired for their deeds. I wish there were no more wars. My dream is that everyone lives in a safe environment, loving and not hating each other. I feel like sometimes people don’t try very hard to befriend people whom are different from themselves, particularly those with different skin color.”
Wesley also told the audience he and the civil rights icon shared more in common than they might think: For one, Wesley’s father, Andy Stoker, is the senior minister at First United Methodist Church of Dallas, and Wesley said his faith community had been “life-changing” in teaching him how to love.
“Dr. King was a minister’s son, and I am a minister’s son as well. I can only imagine that he went to church a lot,” Wesley said, pausing to take a breath and smile. “We need to see everyone’s inner soul instead of what is on the outside. My dream is that people would stop jumping to conclusions that would lead to quick judgments of others. I wish that adults could love each other like kids do.”
Wesley’s impassioned speech paid off when he was awarded first place in the competition — a feat that he and his fellow finalists celebrated with unbridled glee, if photos from the event were any indication.
“I didn’t expect first place,” Wesley told the Dallas Morning News. “Skye Turner was very good, and it was a very tough competition.”
Wesley’s parents, Andy and Megan Stoker, told the newspaper it was their son’s first time speaking in public but that he had probably picked up tips from listening to his father’s sermons every Sunday morning.
“He’s always had that personality, very similar to his dad,” Megan Stoker told the newspaper. “He’s always enjoyed being with people and sharing a message of love — and we nurture that at home.”
Andy Stoker, who last year appeared in an interfaith video in which he advocates unity to combat bigotry, added: “As a white man who grew up in El Paso, Texas, I’ve known for a lot of years what diversity looks like and how we can come together as a community. Hopefully, what’s on the outside somehow falls away and we begin to see that we’re truly in this together.”
Skye Turner, a fourth-grade student at Charles Rice Learning Center — whom Wesley had deemed “very tough competition” — placed second in the Dallas competition, according to Gardere Wynne Sewell, the law firm that has sponsored the competition since 1993.
In the Houston competition, Tchanori Kone, a fifth-grade student from Gregory-Lincoln Elementary School, came in first place. With an eloquence beyond her years, Tchanori said her dream was to eliminate poverty through political action.
“Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream that one day, right here in Alabama, little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers,’ ” Tchanori said. “Well I believe only if these children who are joining hands are not hungry, have had a good night’s sleep and a decent home, and have received the best education and the best health care, they will be able to say that Dr. King’s dream has really come true.”
Caleb Kiteka, a fifth-grader from Windsor Village Elementary, placed second in the Houston competition.
“The energy these students exhibited today was remarkable, exciting to watch and very inspiring,” Gardere chief executive Claude Treece said in a statement. “I’ve been chairing this event in Houston since its inception 22 years ago, and I’m still amazed by the talent, insight and creativity the participants display each year.”