Though Monday was the official holiday marking the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Oak Park and River Forest High School got a jump on the celebration last week with its annual assembly honoring the civil rights leader who was 39 when he was slain and who would have been 82.

Monday also marked the 25th anniversary of King Day as a national holiday, approved by Congress in 1983. The holiday was first observed officially on Jan. 20, 1986. OPRF hosted its first MLK assembly the previous year, 1985 also marking the first time the school hosted its MLK oratorical contest, with students writing and delivering essays about King.

This year’s winner, Alexa Lisitza, a freshman, delivered her speech to a packed school auditorium, Jan. 11. Her winning essay, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” highlighted King’s accomplishments and legacy.

“Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the most influential people in our history. He took a great part in helping African Americans gain rights that every American was supposed to be given at birth according to our Declaration of Independence,” she said.

The freshman recalled first hearing about King.

“In the first grade, I thought that MLK was an abbreviation for ‘milk.’ Then in the third grade, he was the man who helped free slaves without fighting, so he must have had mind control powers, right?” Lisitza said. “Later, in the sixth grade, when things made more sense, Martin Luther King was one of the people who allowed me to sit in a class with a buzz of different races around me, speaking and mingling as if there was truly no difference between us. Finally, here and now, he was not just a man who helped overcome racism. What he did in his life meant so much more. MLK successfully helped African Americans get equal rights and protested peacefully. He is an inspiration to all to use not fists but words.”

The contest runners-up were: Courtney Fields, a sophomore (2nd place); Nora Rogers, a sophomore (3rd place); and sophomore Damian Qualls (3rd place).

The assembly also included performances from students, including the school’s chorale which performed the song “We Are the World” with the OPRF Gospel Choir. A spoken word tribute to King was performed by students Mariah Goodie-Santiago, Hannah Srajer, DeMonet Oliphant and Kyndall Jones.

Previous MLK contest winners

1985 Christine Brown

1986 Leslie Purham

1987 John Kim

1988 Tracy Clay

1989 Bridget Laffler

1990 Juanta Bennett

1991 Shawn Bolan

1992 Juanta Bennett

1993 LaKisha Thurman

1994 Kenyatta Matthews

1995 Rasheed Myles

1996 Keyosha Swanigan

1997 David Bernt

1998 Robin Allen

1999 Brandon Heard/Irorere Osaigbovo

2000 Gianna Baker

2001 Jessica Lewis

2002 Tanu Chaturvedi/Marcelis Wyatt

2003 Joshua Clark

2004 Jamaal James

2005 Mychal Riley

2006 Michelle Mbekeani

2007 Liam Bird

2008 Gabrielle Cole

2009 Jingyi Lui

2010 Denoris Brown

2011 Alexa Lisitza

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