Slavery was not abolished, it was redesigned.

That was the message from Zion Fozo, a Potomac High School student who delivered her original speech at the 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical program on Monday in honor of the civil rights leader’s birthday.

Hundreds of residents listened as three middle school and three high school students gave their original speeches at the Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge. Fozo won the high school competition in the contest organized by the Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. This year’s theme was “Let Freedom Ring.”  

Fozo said the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowed for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. She drew a line from slavery to Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex and said minorities are incarcerated at disproportionate rates.

“However we cannot achieve liberation unless we address the anti-black racism and build connections between our struggles,” she said.

Fozo quoted King, saying, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Themes from past oratorical contests include “It Takes a Village to Raise One Child,” “A View from the Mountain Top,” “A Dream Deferred,” and “The Time is Always Right to Do What is Right.”

Lorraine Jackson, president of the sorority, said “Let Freedom Ring” was the theme for the first oratorical contest in 1991. The sorority highlighted adults who participated in the oratorical program as students and recognized two of the people who started the contest: Joann Bagnerise, who was sorority chair for the first contest, and school board member Lillie Jessie, Occoquan District.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, called the program the most important celebration of King in Northern Virginia for 30 years. He said King found the strength to speak out and peacefully protested Jim Crow laws. 

“He was afraid because he was a man, but he didn’t let fear control him,” Connolly said. 

King’s legacy is a reminder to speak for justice and freedom, he said.

The six students who gave their speeches were selected from a contest for students sixth through 12th grades in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. Students in the MLK Community Choir performed songs that included “Heal the Land” and “We Shall Overcome.” 

Colgan High School student Jessica Gyamfi spoke about the importance of speaking up in the face of discrimination. 

“Dr. King would not want us silent on things that matter,” Gyamfi said. 

Osbourn Park High School student Hanaan Khabir said black boys and men are treated unfairly when it comes to the criminal justice system. 

“I have to tell them that because of the color of their skin, people will forget them when they define freedom,” she said. “King wanted freedom to ring for all of us.” 

Manassas Park Middle School student Myles Lainer spoke about being tired of racism. Lainer was awarded the winner of the oratorical contest for middle school students. 

Bull Run Middle School student Kamari Chisolm, dressed in his baseball uniform and spoke about Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play for Major League Baseball. Chisolm quoted his role model: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” 

Hampton Middle School student Nyela Asterilla Anderson said she entered the contest because she wants people to realize that young people are not oblivious to what is happening in the world. Anderson spoke about how racism still exists. 

“We won some battles, but we are still at war with racism and discrimination,” she said. 

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., noted King was murdered 51 years ago and he would’ve been 91 years old if he were still alive. Warner said while the country has made progress, there is still work left to be done.

“These young people are going to get up and make their case about who we should be as Virginians and Americans,” he said. 

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