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“We have to be the first to do the right thing,” urges a fifth grader from Dallas in a speech by MLK Jr.

Students bring guns to school or die in “senseless violence”.

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down policies affecting access to the vote, the acceptance of immigrants, and the right to abortion.

Schools have removed books from libraries.

All of these issues stand in the way of society becoming the “beloved community” that civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has fought for all his life, fifth grader Zeehair Douglas said Friday.

But where there is ultimate disappointment, there is hope, the 10-year-old believes, as does King.

“I believe that in order for us to improve our nation, we need to make smart decisions and steps that will positively improve the lives of people of all cultures and backgrounds,” Zihir said. “I know Dr. King would be proud of the way we stand up for what we think is right and fair.”

Zeehir, who attends TL Marsalis STEAM Academy in Dallas, won first place at the 31st Annual MLK Jr. Public Speaking Competition. after a fiery Friday speech at WH Adamson High School.

The win marks the completion of a goal Zeehair set over two years ago and a redemption of sorts after he reached the final last year but missed out on the top three.

Being the shortest of all eight finalists on stage, Zihir smiled as he was presented with a commemorative plaque and other prizes for his victory.

Many of the short speeches by the finalists dealt with the challenges the country is currently facing – long-standing issues such as poverty, inequality and prejudice that predated King’s life.

But the youth also spoke of the importance of faith, love and hope in the pursuit of peace.

“He kept trying. He doesn’t want us to leave. He wants us to keep trying,” Zeehir said of King and efforts to improve the future.

The young speaker encouraged his classmates and others not to judge others until he got to know them and to make a difference in his community.

“Everything we do as individuals matters. We need to be the first people to do the right thing in our classrooms, schools and communities to make the change we want to see in the world,” Zihir said.

As in the previous two years, an anonymous sponsor watching the contest on the Internet was moved by the performances and doubled the prizes.

First place winner Zihir received $2,000. He said he plans to donate his prize money to a local non-profit organization and “people who need it.”

Mohamad Mohamad, a fifth grader at Elisha M. Pease Elementary School, came in second and received $1,000.

Bria Hyder, fifth grader at JP Starks Math, Science and Technology Vanguard, placed third and received $400.

The other finalists are Ella Atkins of the Walnut Hill Leadership Academy; Zalia Brown of Clara Oliver Elementary School; Daniella Mitchell of Thomas Tolbert Elementary School; Adrian Rojas of Arturo Salazar Elementary School and Kennedy Smith of the Charles Rice Training Center received $200 each.

Over 60 students from 20 ISD schools in Dallas submitted videos during the first round of the competition. Of these, 22 students made it to the semi-finals. Eight people made it to the final.

This year, for the first time since 2020, the competition was held in person.

“We are all fighting for a better world,” says speaking contest winner MLK Jr.

The judges included Patrick Bonner, Executive Deputy Chief of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department; Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia; Stephanie Zapata Moore, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Vistra Energy; Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary and State Senator Royce West, Dallas.

West, who was home in Dallas for the weekend just days after the legislative session began, said the judges had a hard time because all the speeches were great.

According to West, Zeehir became attached to him because of the fifth grader’s understanding of the plight of the African American community and how he encouraged viewers to continue following King’s dream.

The competition, sponsored by Foley & Lardner LLP, aims to further spread King’s message and lessons from one generation to the next. Since its launch in 1993, the event has also expanded to Houston and Chicago.

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and discussion of pressing educational issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative supported by The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottie Lyle, Texas Community Foundation, Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Didi Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, Meadows Foundation, Murrell Foundation, Solution Journalists Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab’s journalism.

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