A handful of youth speakers shared perspectives on injustice and Gov. Mike DeWine celebrated diversity in Ohio on Thursday at the 35th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration.
Four young people representing third graders to high school seniors were recognized as winners of their respective age brackets in the 2019 MLK oratorical contest. They delivered their speeches to a crowd gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church Downtown.
Adonia Balqis, 11, a sixth grader from Clinton Elementary School in Columbus, put her oratorical skills on full display.
She was champion of the intermediate division — providing an impassioned oration that saw members in the audience verbally affirm her during the speech, which ended with a standing ovation.
She addressed what she said is ongoing justice in American society amid the commemoration of the Wednesday birthday of the minister and civil rights leader slain in 1968.
“I’m hearing the news, and am by no means amused, I’m actually confused,” Balquis said in rhyming meter. “School mass shootings, police abusing, ballots uncounted, yet they say we are united.”
Her voice often rose and fell for emphasis. “Where do I begin? Where do I end? Should I scream and shout about voter suppression in the South?” Balqis said, her voice rising to a crescendo and then falling into a much gentler tone. “Or should I cry, and want to die, every time a woman is called a liar.”
Playon Patrick, 17, a senior from Fort Hayes High School in Columbus, also roused the audience with his speech, titled “Rise, Decline, and Fall.” He was the victor of the senior division of the competition.
His speech focused on the heritage and present conditions of African Americans, specifically young men.
“I don’t mean no kings and queens, our blood is forever young and forever being spilled on the Earth — and we already knew that,” Patrick said.
He continued with a condemnation of police brutality against members of the African American community, something he said was frighteningly familiar.
“The way we can scream ‘F’ the police, but it doesn’t sound the same when police are openly, secretly, killing you,” Patrick said. “And maybe that is where our story begins.”
Patrick ended his speech by reminding the audience of violent crimes committed against black men — mentioning Emmet Till, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner.
DeWine said he was impressed by the tenacity of the youth.
“You always have to be very impressed by young people who can stand in front of an audience, sometimes an audience of strangers, and speak very eloquently,” DeWine said. “I certainly admire them and congratulate them.”
DeWine, who himself delivered a speech, said the event is about recognizing modern civil rights leaders who work on the ground floor of racial justice.
“We are one people,” DeWine said referring to the E Plurbus Unum motto. “The greatness of this country that comes from many, we are one.”
A number of adults who worked toward social justice were given awards at the ceremony.
Billy Joe White, a tattoo artist from Zanesville, was awarded the Cultural Awareness Award. He received this award because he is renowned for offering to ink over hateful or racist tattoos free of charge.
He gained some public notoriety for this work, and was featured in the 2018 short documentary, “Beneath the Ink.” He said the nonviolent legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. inspires his work.
“I think it’s important for us to know that any of us can be ourselves and be human and take a stand in a non-violent, peaceful way,” White said. “And to know that I share with Dr. King that peace and love conquers hate is an amazing thing.”
Cole Behrens is a fellow with the E.W. Scripps Statehouse News Bureau.