MANATEE -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was alive Thursday in Manatee County as students competed in the 2013-14 Martin Luther King Speech and Essay Contest.
Caleb Francois of Southeast High School, and Thierryanne Thomas of Harllee Middle School, walked away the top winners earning $150 and a new Dell laptop and printer.
Students this year were challenged to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington and MLK's "I have a Dream" speech. They were asked: "Do you believe today's youth truly understands the importance of the civil rights movement."
"The civil rights movement let freedom ring and sped up the day of freedom and equality," Francois said. "It denounced segregation, degradation
and violence and allowed America, a land that once enslaved, lynched and segregated people of color, to have its very first African-American president."
His supportive mother was nearly speechless following the presentation to the winners.
"I am just so excited for him," Fabienne Francois said.
Speeches were evaluated by five judges and 23 finalists were chosen to deliver their speech live Thursday night. Finalists were chosen from 50 student entries: 39 from middle school and 11 from high school.
The contest was held at the Palmetto Youth Center for the 13th year in a row. All finalists received gift bags from Bealls and certificates of participation.
In the high school division, Fedjine Constant of the State College of Florida Collegiate School came in second place and won $100. In third place was Olivia Doronio of the State College of Florida Collegiate School, winning $75. Receiving honorable mention was Alisha Erozer of the State College of Florida Collegiate School, winning $50.
Competition was even more fierce at the middle school level.
"We do not have Dr. Martin Luther King to protest for us now. We have to do it on our own," Thomas said. "I will do everything I can to stop my generation from this racist nonsense. I will lead our youth in the right path of the civil rights movement! Will you join me?"
In the middle school division, La'Johntay Wester of Palm View Middle School came in second place and won $100. In third place was Morgan Deglopper of Nolan Middle School, winning $75, and earning honorable mention was Alina Jeglie, of Nolan Middle School, winning $50.
Wester's father stood proudly waiting as his son exited the stage.
"I am just so proud," John Wester Sr. said. "He loves sports but like I always tell him, academics and these types of things is where it starts."
Jessica De Leon, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon102.