WEB EXTRA: See a video of the winning OPRF speech, plus video of the original Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech.

Oak Park and River Forest High School last Friday hosted its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assembly.

The assembly included a performance by the school’s gospel and a cappella choirs, and the winner and runners-up in the school’s annual King oratorical contest.

Contest participants write and recite an essay about King and his legacy.

Click here for a recording of Liam Bird’s winning speech.

Along with this year’s winner, senior Liam Bird, the second and third place finalists also recited their essays at Friday’s assembly, the first time all of the winning finalists have done so.

Speaking in front of a packed audience of mostly peers in OPRF’s main auditorium, Bird, 18, addressed the use of stereotypes and racial slurs used frequently in society and by students at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville Ave.

After the assembly, Bird, a first-place runner-up last year to Michelle Mbekeani, said the lack of progress in society inspired him to write his essay.

“When I walk through the lunchrooms, looking in my classes, I just think there’s still a lot of progress to be made, and I’m just trying to elevate it, even with this speech today.”

Self-segregation, for example, is alive and well with ethnic groups today, Bird noted in his speech, which drew applause, cheers and several “Preach, brother!” comments from throughout the crowd.

He said afterwards that he identifies most with King’s emphasis on speaking out against

“He was against silence,” Bird said. “He believed it’s the most destructive action than an individual can take, and I completely agree with that. You have to stand up, speak up and take action no matter what.”

Second-place winner and OPRF senior Luke Knanishu spoke against people misjudging one another based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Knanishu, whose voice carried loudly in the 1,700-seat auditorium, is a veteran OPRF stage performer, having appeared in a number of school productions.

Tabitha Watson, a third-place winner this year, was inspired to write her essay from the letter published in Wednesday Journal’s Viewpoints section from an Oak Park resident falsely accusing an OPRF student of being in a gang.

“I wanted to put a positive turn on the school because I think everyone did a wonderful job, like the way everyone responded,” said the 17-year-old junior.

This was Watson’s first entry into the annual contest. Friday’s assembly included spoken word King tribute performances from OPRF students Deja Taylor, Christian Harris and Novana Venerable.

Superintendent/Principal Susan Bridge said all of the performances demonstrated that many of today’s youth, and particularly those at OPRF, do understand what King stood for.

“From the words I heard out of the mouths of babes today, I would say there is indeed hope that they do,” Bridge said.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

Click “play” for the original, 16-minute Martin Luther King, Jr., speech.

Join the discussion on social media!