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Students shine in oratorical contest

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Harmonie Braswell delivers her speech on the theme of ‘Continuing the Journey’ during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Competition on Saturday at the Imperial Centre. Braswell won first place in the grades 9-12 competition.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Harmonie Braswell is quite good in the field of public speaking.

That's because for the third time, Braswell on Saturday earned a first place award at the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Competition.

More than 100 people watched the annual event, which was held at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences. The event was divided into competitions among middle school and high school contestants.

The attendees saw intense speeches by more than a few of the high school student contestants, who gave their thoughts about the state of King's dream for equality and peace and also gave their thoughts about the future for minorities.

Braswell led a field of nine students participating from grades nine through 12. Nyanna Sherrod came in second for the second time. Ta'Niye Thorne come in third.

Eight students from grades six through eight competed, with Austin Burton coming in first. Terrence Pittman came in second. Timothy Watson came in third.

Braswell said she was elated about being first among contestants from local high schools.

"I had a lot of competition this year, but I did what I knew I had to do," she said.

Braswell credited hard work and practicing for her three years of success. Her first two successes occurred when she was a middle school student.

Braswell's mother, Maressa Hunter, cited parental guidance as another factor, particularly in helping make sure her daughter's speech flowed.

Second-place high school finisher Sherrod drew a loud burst of applause and cheers from the audience after her speech.

"I like that I get to voice my opinion about this topic," Sherrod said.

Saturday marked the first time middle-school student Burton participated in such an event.

"I was completely surprised and overwhelmed," Burton said after receiving a first-place honor. "I did not expect it."

The event organizers asked the high school contestants to focus on a theme of "Continuing the Journey."

Braswell spoke of the journey, led by King's non-violent mass resistance to white supremacy, resulting in the Lyndon Johnson administration securing passage of federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"We should continue the journey by reminding people of the sacrifices made and the many lives lost of those who fought and paved the way so that all people will have the right to vote," she said.

She went on to speak of her own experience of having learned her program of study was changed without her parents' or her consent.

"You see, when you allow people to make decisions without you, but the decisions involve you, that takes away your voice," she said.

She spoke about her parents teaching her the importance of having a voice to speak up for what's right when she knows she has been mistreated, as well as having a voice showing King's journey wasn't in vain.

"People, don't be silenced about the things that matter to you. Let's continue the journey and use our voices and exercise our rights," she said.

Second-place high school student Sherrod said although the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 abolished slavery in the U.S., she believes it has somehow masked itself in the educational, judicial and political systems.

"During our last election, we were asked to vote for six amendments that were very misleading in hopes that we would not do our research on them and vote for them," Sherrod said.

Sherrod was referring to the Republican-controlled General Assembly putting a record six proposed amendments to North Carolina's constitution before the state's voters.

One amendment of much debate, approved in the November general election, requires the state's voters to have to present photo identification when casting ballots at the polls, with certain exemptions. Six voters quickly filed a lawsuit challenging the measure.

Sherrod also said she believes the educational system has become less about educating and more driven by funding while students are suffering.

She went on to speak of King having dreamed of civil and economic rights for all and also having dreamed of the day racism would end.

"How close are we to fulfilling that dream, that belief? Do we keep ignoring the obvious, that there is a systematic warfare that’s taking place — and has been in place for centuries — to progress one race and regress the other?" she asked the audience.

She went so far as to predict Americans in the near future are going to see the results of inequality, injustice and "poor leadership at its best" with a coming of an economic recession. She asked the audience what they’re going to do and what steps they’re going to take.

"Or will we come back this time next year, still continuing the journey?" she asked.

Event organizers asked middle school contestants to focus on a theme of "At the Center of It All" and to choose to speak in the context of hope, love or peace.

First-place middle school winner Burton said he believes the foundation of the civil rights movement was primarily rooted in hope.

Burton also said he believes King, as the main face of the movement, knew he had to keep his hope so others wouldn't lose theirs.

He noted King once said, "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

"What are you hoping for?" he asked the audience.

Saturday's first-place winners will receive $175, while second-place winners will receive $150 and third-place winners will receive $125.

Additionally, the first-place winners in the high school and middle school categories are going to get to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast. The program is set for 8 a.m. on Jan. 21 at Dunn Center for the Performing Arts at N.C. Wesleyan College.

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