The words in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. were fitting, and so was the speaker: a well-dressed, young black man who recited his speech with a sincere and forceful tone.
"Say no to gangs when they tell you to quit school, take drugs and kill people," George Woods, 11, told the audience of about 500. "I will not just try my best to just say no, I will say no! No to getting involved with gangs and getting myself killed. No to getting sick on drugs and becoming a threat to my entire family. . . . I will not forget these promises I have made to myself when I became a teen-ager, because I have seen many teens who have forgotten the dream and are giving up on themselves," the fifth-grader boomed, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd.
Woods, a student at 75th Street School in Los Angeles, was one of many winners of the 11th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Art and Essay Contest honored Saturday at the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park. He and other students read excerpts from their award-winning essays, which explored the theme, "Living the Dream: Choosing Nonviolence Over Gang Violence."
Pamela Richardson, 17, the overall essay winner, recited a similar message before the mostly black audience.
"I have my own personal dream, and I want to live the dream. . . . My dream is the dream of a time of nonviolence, the dream of a world where all people join together and work to end poverty, ignorance and strife. . . . The dream, my dream, is that we'll live in harmony and that the death knell that marks the fall of yet another child in our land will be heard no more.
"The dream, my dream, is for life," said Richardson, a senior at Alain Leroy Locke High School.
Art competition entries were less plentiful, but more diverse. Prize-winning creations ranged from a colorful stick-figure drawing of gang members by the first-grade class at St. Cecelia School to a somber painting by 12th-graders at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills of King brooding above eerie skeleton-like figures with knives and drug-injecting needles in their hands.
About 36 elementary and secondary school students won Olympic-like medallions and biographies about King for their work. The top four winners--all high school seniors, including Artur Barasinksi, a foreign exchange student from Germany who attends Pasadena High School--were awarded scholarships during the presentation that featured actress Sheryl Lee Ralph of "It's a Living."
This year's theme of saying no to gang violence sparked essays and artwork from more than 1,200 students from public and parochial schools in the Los Angeles, Compton and Pasadena districts, said Vallee Bunting, media coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which sponsored the contest as part of an annual weeklong tribute to the slain civil rights leader, who would have been 59 Friday.
"We try to apply contemporary issues to the philosophies of Martin Luther King," Bunting said. "Some of the entrants wrote of being involved in gangs and spoke from personal experiences. Gang violence is such a current problem, and we believe the answers to it lie in King's message."