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The Dream in Manatee lives in our school children

Shanequa Bernard and Kandyce Lopez have climbed to the mountaintop.

So have 286 other Manatee County youngsters — the record number of students who entered this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. essay and speech contest. And for three hours Thursday evening, the contest’s 29 finalists filled the Palmetto Youth Center with passion and conviction.

Shanequa and Kandyce were among them, and I don’t think they ever officially met. But as each young woman took that stage, I was captivated by their remarkably similar brave spirit. How did they have such earnest confidence in their words?

They both sat with proud parents — the foundation of confidence. Before they had entered the contest, both had to be pushed by teachers they adored. And both 12th-graders had suddenly found themselves profoundly moved as they absorbed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for the first time since Barack Obama became President-elect.

“I realized I didn’t take the significance of it all as seriously as I should have,” Kandyce told me.

“I really understood, all of a sudden, just how important this is.”

Shanequa realized she had a message that had to be heard.

“Change has come, but racism still exists,” she said. “Suddenly, it came to me to write about what has happened to me, to my family, to people across our nation who have known discrimination.”

And it wasn’t about winning for either of them.

They were thrilled to be part of a night that hummed with change. They put their stage fright aside and poured their hearts out in answering the question, “Is President Barack Obama’s election a realization of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream?”

“For all the people who have held onto their faith in this country, even at its worst, look, and see what it has become. Not a perfect nation, but indeed a great one,” wrote Kandyce, daughter of Pedro and Noemi Lopez, both Cuban immigrants. Kandyce held tightly to her mom’s hand Thursday night — except when she was giving her speech, which a very proud dad captured on video.

“If Dr. King were able to see the change that has occurred over the years, there is no doubt in my mind he would be ecstatic,” Shanequa wrote. “Yet in order to obtain Dr. King’s dream we must become unsatisfied and continue to strive for a nation that is truly color-blind.”

She sat in the front row with her mom, Linda, who switched her work hours to 2 a.m. so she could witness her daughter’s success.

Every student, even the youngest, had powerful opinions that ran the gamut.

“We’re not talking about a black man being more powerful than a white man,” said Desmond Brown, a seventh-grader. “No, this is about a black man showing we are all equal. That is what Martin wanted.”

Eighth-grader Immani Mays answered the essay question firmly: “No, it is not. Obama being elected president is a step toward Dr. King’s dream being realized, but there is still a long way to go.”

“The election of Barack Obama should not be considered a victory solely for African-Americans but for all people,” declared Tara Hart, a senior.

“One black president is not going to change all racist beliefs in America,” 10th-grader Kylie Hickman said.

“Racists are not going to change how they treat people of different skin color just because they have a black president.”

“President-elect Barack Obama is a man of determination and true leadership,” said Brea Peterson, another seventh-grader. “On Jan. 20, as millions will witness his inauguration, let us join in hearts and minds as a nation of one people and support him and say, WE CAN, WE DID and YES WE WILL!!”

“I will end this by saying Rosa Parks sat so Dr. Martin Luther King could walk. Dr. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that I can fly. Thank you.”

Thank you, Nia Joseph. Your 11th-grade wisdom would make Dr. King proud.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

Joan Krauter, Herald executive editor, can be reached at (941) 748-0411, ext. 2000.