Northwestern students compete in MLK Oratorical Contest

Peter Kotecki, Reporter

The 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Contest concluded its second and final round Monday afternoon with the recitation of three student speeches at McCormick Auditorium in Norris University Center.

The three finalists’ speeches were assessed on style, content, organization, creativity, quality and persuasiveness. School of Education and Social Policy senior Sarah Carthen Watson was announced as the winner of the oratorical contest at the end of the recitation. She will recite her oration at the MLK Commemoration event on Jan. 26 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

For the first stage of the contest, Northwestern students were asked to discuss the meaning of a King quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” A panel of three judges read the essays and chose three students, Weinberg freshman Sumaia Masoom, SESP junior Zane Waxman and Carthen Watson, as finalists in the contest.

Masoom, Waxman and Carthen Watson performed their speeches to an audience of more than 60 people Monday. This event, the University’s first annual oratorical contest, developed because NU wanted to find another way to engage undergraduates in the commemoration of King, said Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications Prof. Charles Whitaker. Whitaker serves on the board of Students Publishing Company, The Daily’s parent company.

Carthen Watson said she related the King quote back to the events that transpired in Ferguson, Missouri.

“I linked it back to my favorite movie, ‘The Great Debaters,’ because the last debate of that movie is about civil disobedience,” Carthen Watson told The Daily.

She used a line from the movie in her speech: “There is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South.” 

“The closing scene taught me a crucial lesson about the ways that black people experience the criminal justice system in the United States,” Carthen Watson said in her speech.

She told The Daily the movie’s message of civil disobedience not only ties in with the quote from King, but also connects to present-day issues.

“It is hypocritical in and of itself to tell people who are oppressed by the law that in order to stop being oppressed, they need to respect the very law that oppresses them,” she said.

Waxman said he focused his speech on aspects of King’s life infrequently discussed in the media and in history textbooks. Waxman applied King’s focus on opposition to war and to the corruption of government as he discussed mass incarceration.

Waxman also addressed the lessons he learned from King, noting his step-mom’s father was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an African-American fighter-pilot unit during World War II.

“Although I don’t personally have to deal with racist discrimination on a daily basis, it’s something that different members of my family are affected by economically,” Waxman told The Daily.

In fact, his step-mother’s father was not given access to the benefits of the GI Bill and was banned from piloting after serving the country during World War II, he said.

In her speech, Masoom said issues like institutional racism that are being addressed in society today — and the fact that people are struggling to tackle them – inspire her to talk about these topics.

The three speakers said they were pleased NU commemorates King. Carthen Watson said King should continue to serve as a contemporary inspiration.

“We must expend every ounce of energy we have to make sure that 100 years from now, when our successors honor Dr. King, they will be able to say that the world is a better place for civil rights than it was in 1915 and 2015,” she said to end her speech.

Waxman also said he hoped the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration would serve as a catalyst for improvement.

“I really hope we take this opportunity as a university community to challenge ourselves to become more involved in making the world around us a more just place,” Waxman told The Daily.

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