Gabrielle Cole received a thunderous ovation from her peers, Jan. 11, after delivering her speech during Oak Park and River Forest High School’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly. Cole, a 17-year-old junior, finished first in the school’s Dr. King Oratorical Contest this year.

The confident-sounding OPRF junior, who’s also a forward on the girl’s varsity basketball team, admitted she was a little nervous delivering her speech during the first morning assembly, though she was more relaxed by the second assembly.

Cole said she took a different approach with her essay. This was her first time participating in the contest, but she had attended previous MLK assemblies. The speeches in years past-all good and inspiring, she noted-tended to be “racially-focused,” Cole said. Though it’s important to know who you are and where you come from, Cole insists that race wasn’t the sole focus of Dr. King.

Dr. King, she added, shouldn’t be limited to only black people and the Civil Rights Movement.

“When I think of Dr. King, his legacy was non-violence, the idea that we will love those who hate us, that we will forgive those who treated us poorly,” said Cole, sounding older and wiser than her years. “Those were more of the themes he stood for, not just black people.”

Cole, who would like to attend Yale University, said she didn’t practice her speech in front of others.

Instead, she read the speech over to herself alone. She did let her English teacher read it over, but when it came time to deliver it at school, she just went for it.

“I felt I was just speaking what was on my mind and what’s in my heart,” said Cole, who was taken by the reaction from her peers. “That was wonderful because it’s always great to get that support.”

Cole addressed some familiar themes in her speech. She talked about segregation in society and at schools like OPRF.

“The struggle that we are in today isn’t racially-oriented but socially-oriented,” she told the audience. “Segregation is the result of ignorance of Martin Luther King’s true goals.”

Cole said you can see segregation “in our classes, our lunchrooms, at the bus stops, in the halls, at our dances, at our sporting events.”

After the speech, she spoke more about “self-segregation” and why it exists in society today.

“The reason it’s there, aside from the fact that people like to hang out with people they like [is that] black people are ingrained with this stigma around who’s black enough. No one wants to be an ‘Oreo,’ or perceived as ‘acting white,'” she said.

The Oreo stigma refers to being “black on the outside, but white on the inside.” But segregation goes deeper than that, she noted.

“Not only do we have a separation of black and white people, but it’s frowned upon to even cross that line, not just with other races but your own race,” she said.

Cole has ideas about how OPRF can tackle its segregation, admitting that “what to do” is always the difficult part.

“OPRF should be looking to attack this problem. We should be making attempts at bridging that color line,” she said. “As a school, we need to make unity the focus, not diversity. We know we have diversity, and it’s a wonderful thing, but it means nothing if you’re not talking to the person next to you.”

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