Today, the nation celebrates the birthday, life and activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement.
If he were still alive, King would be 93 years old.
The Marcus Performing Arts Center honors the civil rights figure with its 38th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration program to highlight the youth of the community.
Each year, young people interpret King’s words through art, speeches and writing contests.
WUWM Race & Ethnicity reporter Teran Powell spoke to two first-place winners about their nominations and the importance of King’s principles today.
Amillia Bell is a senior at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee.
She is also the first place winner of the Marcus Performing Art Center’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration.
Bell has participated in the Marcus Center speech contests since second grade. Here’s some of what she wrote this year, earning her first place in the grades 11-12 speech category.
“Many families face trials and tribulations as teen gun violence and high-speed teenage death chases remain at an all-time high.”
“This year I felt like the theme was something that was a topic for all of our speeches. Like all the time I’ve done since grade 2 because every year we use the theme that we’ve got the opportunity to talk about something that’s happening in our community,” Bell said.
This year’s theme is “We Must Speak”, a reference to King’s speech “A Time to Break Silence”.
Bell said she reviewed her past speeches to find topics that are still relevant today. She chose juvenile delinquency.
“I wanted to discuss in my speech this year how we need to talk and get involved in the community when it comes to young people, because tomorrow it will be our politicians, our doctors, our lawyers,” Bell said. “Going forward, they will be our leaders, so it’s important that we take an interest in their lives and just provide ourselves with the resources to succeed, because that’s the only way to have a bright future.”
Bell said his speech was for everyone, but especially adults and politicians.
“Although today, as young people, we are only learners and observers, tomorrow we will be your politicians, your doctors and your lawyers leading this nation. Because we are a product of our environment, it’s important that you take an interest in the lives of young people and provide us with the resources to succeed Whether it’s creating opportunities on your own or getting involved in organizations whose purpose is to help young people succeed. So after witnessing the death of our future, let’s change direction. Let’s change this narrative! Speak up to be heard! Speak up so someone will listen! Speak loudly, speak proudly and speak up!” Bell said.
Bell said her message to young children participating in the King Day contests at the Marcus Center is to be fearless and use their voices for good and to not be afraid to get out into the community and create change.
Jesabelle Cruz is another first place winner of the Marcus Center King Day contests, but in the writing category.
Cruz is a freshman at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. It was Cruz’s first entry.
She said her goal was to use the “We need to talk” theme from King’s speech to address as many social justice issues in the United States as she could think of.
“My goal was to give voice to these communities, and what I did was I spoke to people who were part of the communities facing these issues. I wanted to hear their perspectives,” Cruz said. “I’ve never seen firsthand the extent of the racism and discrimination that’s rampant. It’s spreading through neighborhoods like bacteria ready to kill. How badly a white American could get away with things that a black American couldn’t.”
Cruz said through her conversations with people of different identities. It became clear that everyone had one thing in common: they were all facing problems.
“Part of me was kind of enraged, furious. And the only way I could speak with my voice without having to actually speak was through my writing. And that’s why I really think the views of those people, that everybody else’s problems that they experienced, I really think that them talking about it and being open to it is really what shaped my writing work for me, that n It’s not just the writing job, it’s a voice,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the courage King had to use his platform to amplify the voices of people who hadn’t had the space to speak for themselves was very inspiring and tied to his life today.
His message to listeners is to remember that they are loved and appreciated. She added that if there is an issue that matters to you and you don’t feel able to talk to anyone, write it down.
An excerpt from Cruz’s winning piece:
“Everyone is perfect the way they are, and it’s way too late for everyone to realize that. Your skin pigmentation shouldn’t be a coin to which side of America goes. Your worth. And the barrier of not speaking English doesn’t make you an American-style immigrant. Being Muslim or non-Christian doesn’t make your religion less important, and your beliefs don’t make you inferior. Those in the LGBTQ+ community don’t deserve to be treated inhumanely for their identity or sexuality. Society has been the bridge to normalized behavior for a very long time, so now we have to break them. We’ll break them by talking; we’ll talk.